It's a testament to our ever-narrowing attention spans that the title above could seem so ridiculous in 2010. To cast Georgetown—a program with a long, illustrious hoops history—in the role of David seems like a stretch. A good way to look at the Hoyas, then, would be to look at a school like St. Johns now.
Like the Hoyas a few years ago, St. Johns is just an average basketball team. This year, they're 12-8, have a few good athletes, and might have one or two encouraging upset wins. Otherwise, they'll probably lose 75% of their Big East games. And while their illustrious history from the 80s and 90s may keep them from ever fading into complete oblivion as a program, it also exacerbates their current struggles. The painfully average St. Johns of today are cursed by constant comparisons to the magical St. Johns teams of yesteryear.
That's how it was at Georgetown, too. Past glory—not to mention stars like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson—just made the contemporary mediocrity that much more glaring. When Georgetown played Duke in 2006, they'd been to the NCAA Tournament just once over the past 8 years, and they were still reeling after finishing the previous year with five straight losses that took them out of tournament contention. Not exactly a powerhouse.
With tons of athleticism and a promising young coach, maybe the Hoyas weren't as much of an underdog as everyone thought at that point. But still. It sure felt like they were, especially when you considered the opponents.
Because Duke was a Goliath. Remember that team? They had J.J. Redick in his senior year. Shelden Williams, who'd go on to be an NBA lottery pick. Josh McRoberts, the superstar sophomore big man. And then Greg Paulus and Sean Dockery in the backcourt, youth and shooting splitting time with experience and defense. Snicker now, but back then their rotation seemed just about perfect.
When they traveled to D.C. in 2006, the Blue Devils had been ranked number one in the country the entire season, Redick was writing another chapter in one of the most storied careers in college basketball history, and Duke was undefeated at 17-0. Georgetown was 11-4, unranked, unproven, and wildly unspectacular.
And then Georgetown won and Duke lost, and everything changed for both schools.
On Saturday, in a stadium full of gray, you wouldn't have recognized either program from 2006. Georgetown plays at the Verizon Center in downtown D.C. And while the arena dutifully lays out a "Georgetown home court" for each Hoyas contest, you're still talking about a professional stadium, designed more for the quiet ebb and flow of NBA basketball than the forty-minutes-at-a-fever-pitch college game.
It's not supposed to be that crazy in the Verizon Center, but goddamnit it was. All game long, and from alumni and students alike. As someone that's sat among far too many lifeless Wizards' crowds, the Georgetown atmosphere was kind of jarring. In a good, fun, really awesome way.
The Georgetown players responded with just about the most perfect half of basketball you'll ever see. It was either good defense leading to good offense or the inverse, but whatever it was, it worked. The Hoyas held Duke to 33% shooting, and shot 77% themselves, heading to halftime with a 13-point lead that they'd pretty much never relinquish the rest of the way.
What resonated more than anything else, though, was just how easy it looked. Duke had been outclassed. In 2006, Georgetown had caught Goliath by surprise in the first half, and went to halftime with a 14-point lead. But after that, Duke chipped away at the big lead and nearly won it, as the Hoyas hung on for dear life. Georgetown may have won the game, but Duke was still the better team. Had the game been five minutes longer, J.J. Redick and Co. would have come out on top.
But on Saturday, the two teams could have played 80 minutes, and Duke wouldn't have had a prayer. Guards, big men, offense, defense—on every level, Georgetown was just superior. How did we get here? It's like Goliath got slow and weak, and David got big and strong. And badass.
I should mention here that while I've lived in Washington D.C for most of my life, I have no vested interest in Hoya success, and this is not, as some cynic like Pete Thamel might obnoxiously sneer, a "warm and fuzzy hug" to my favorite team. The Hoyas mean nothing to me. It's just that as a college basketball fan, the symbolism of Saturday's game is impossible to ignore.
During the second half, when it became clear that Georgetown was going to win, I couldn't stop thinking about the difference one game can make in the trajectory of a basketball program. Or in this case, two basketball programs. Saturday was the finale in a four game series between Duke and Georgetown, and when you look back at the past few years for both schools, that first game emerges as a tipping point for each program. And the changes were borne out in the finale.
First and foremost among those changes? Georgetown's Greg Monroe. Growing up in Louisiana, Monroe always liked the Duke Blue Devils. And when he emerged as one of the top five high school basketball players in the country, the feeling was suddenly very mutual. After Saturday's game, Coach K called Greg Monroe an "extremely talented basketball player," but neglected to add, "...that we tried really, really hard to recruit." And didn't get.
Back in 2006, Monroe had this to say when asked about Duke:
I just remember watching them coming up and always being amazed at how they played. Coach K just always seems to have really great players who go there and it always seems like he helps them play their best. ... Overall, they just seem to be really caring and supportive of me and my game. ... To be a recruit for any college is just a blessing to me, but yeah, it’s definitely different to be recruited by them, it’s kind of cool to get to talk with the guys that I’ve watched on TV growing up.
Pretty glowing praise right there. And then... Monroe went to Georgetown.
For years, Duke didn't so much recruit players as select them. Whoever Coach K wanted, he usually got. It's part of why that program became the gold standard in college basketball for the better part of the 90s and 2000s. And it may not have happened exactly on January 21st, 2006, at approximately 3:30 EST when Georgetown beat Duke, but somewhere around that time, Duke stopped being the invincible gold standard that the rest of the nation had come to fear and revere. Gradually, they just came back to earth.
Whether it was falling to unranked Georgetown, losing at home to Carolina on J.J. Redick's senior day that year, or LSU's athleticism completely overwhelming them in the tournament, it's like everybody took a step back and collectively realized, "You know, maybe Duke's not that great."
It's not that Duke was suddenly bad or even average, but they were no longer a foregone conclusion as the most prestigious program in college basketball. Just like that, it became conceivable that someone like Greg Monroe—a lifelong Duke fan—could decide that he'd be best served spending his college career somewhere else. And that's why Saturday, when Monroe was the catalyst for an emphatic win over Duke, was so symbolic.
It's not even that Monroe is an emblem of Georgetown's success over the past few years, but more that he epitomizes why Duke has struggled over that same span. In the first half Saturday, he only scored 6 points, but with his passing and the attention he drew from the Duke defense, he set up teammates for easy backdoor layups and open threes that helped break the game wide open for the Hoyas. At 7 feet, with preternatural passing ability and good ball-handling skills, Monroe puts pressure on the defense every second that he's on the floor. Duke doesn't have players like that anymore.
Suddenly, there's just guys like Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, and Lance Thomas—all good players, but none of whom really strike fear into opponents. They're just good, not scary. A big change from where Duke was just a few years ago. Postgame, Mike Krzyzewski shrugged his shoulders, explaining that there was nothing that amazing about the loss. "We're not a powerhouse," he said.**
But fours years ago, Duke was the powerhouse. And Georgetown was just an afterthought.
Now, Georgetown basketball is on the A-list again. Not just because Saturday's game attracted President Obama and Joe Biden (who is perpetually grinning, I think), but because of the other 20,000 people that were there screaming their heads off. As Hoyas coach John Thompson explained, "Every day, there's an energy we get from our fans, from our students. And it's tangible. It's real." And on Saturday, you could feel it all over the stadium.
Sure, Obama's presence contributed to the atmosphere, but you get the feeling it would have been pretty crazy regardless. There were grown men drinking beer at 10:00 am in Clydes, famous donors like Ted Leonsis sitting courtside, and 20,000 gray shirts passed out by the Hoya hoop club gracing every seat in the Verizon Center. These are the types of things that happen when you have a big time college basketball program.
The excitement grows exponentially with each win. Among the students, the alumni, and even the city of Washington D.C., where buses roam around with giant Georgetown billboards on the side. It all builds and builds, and then you have a situation like Saturday, where the President's sitting courtside, and thousands of people are wearing gray, shouting their heads off for two hours straight. At that point, the excitement, and the energy, becomes tangible. It's real.
And it all began four years ago with that Duke game. That was the game that first announced Georgetown's resurgence was real. A win over that Duke team was as emphatic as any upset they could have pulled. In hindsight, it was a harbinger of Duke's gradual descent from the college basketball's pinnacle, but that doesn't diminish the significance one bit.
After eight years of floundering, that win got the ball rolling in the right direction. It sparks recruiting, morale, and fan interest. In 2006, they proved they can play with anyone in the country. That was the first step: Hope. Now in 2010, Georgetown knows they belong among the powerhouses.
Both the fans and the team expected to beat Duke, and it showed. Their climb to the top 10 in college basketball started four years ago, so it's appropriate that it would culminate on Saturday in front of a sellout crowd, President Obama, and against the same team that got it started. Because make no mistake: Duke was outclassed on Saturday. They're just not as good a team. It's hard to believe that it could happen in just four years, but David's gotten bigger and stronger than Goliath.
As one Georgetown fan remembered that first game, "It was then I realized that it is okay to let go of the past ... And it is okay to hope." Give a program hope, and there's no telling what might happen.
**Correction: This quote was originally reported as "We're a powerhouse, and Georgetown's a powerhouse," but has since been corrected, with the full quote here: "We're not a powerhouse. I don't think Georgetown's a powerhouse, either. We're two really good teams."