From China With Love

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

The Georgetown Hoyas won’t be playing any college basketball this weekend, as the men’s NCAA tournament field winnows down from 16 teams to the Final Four. Georgetown was already winnowed out last weekend, losing to the lower-seeded North Carolina State Wolfpack Sunday in a game that Georgetown let spin out of its control early on.

But the collective teeth-gnashing of local hoops fans that accompanied the disappointing end to the season only underscores how much this year’s team—mostly a collection of freshmen and sophomores—overachieved. A year after three senior starters graduated, the team sat in or near the top 10 in the national polls most of the year; Georgetown went on to win its first round tournament game for the first time in four years. When the college basketball season started five months ago, no one would have complained about the Hoyas falling just short of the Sweet 16; back then, not many sports pundits expected them to make the tournament at all. How did the Hoyas get hopes up to the point that Sunday’s loss was a bitter disappointment?

Thank the Chinese army.

Taking advantage of an NCAA rule that allows teams to embark on an international trip once every four years, Georgetown’s season officially began in August roughly 7,000 miles from campus in Beijing. The trip was billed as a cultural exchange, but with Vice President Joe Biden in China at the same time, there was a heavy diplomatic undertone to the whole thing. Their third game, a “friendly” contest with the army-sponsored Bayi Military Rockets, nearly caused an international incident.

With nearly 10 minutes left in the game and the score tied at 64, a fight broke out after one too many hard fouls by a Bayi player somehow went unnoticed by the refs and the Hoyas started complaining. Two minutes later coaches were breaking up punches and picking up thrown chairs. Georgetown ran off the court under a hail of water bottles from the stands.

Nobody was hurt, and soon both teams would exchange gifts and apologies in an attempt to clear the air. But the brawl would wind up becoming a touchstone for the players through the rest of the year: No coach can engineer a team-building exercise quite as effective as dropping teenagers into a chair-throwing mêlée against military-backed professionals on the other side of the planet.

“Having gone through it, it without a doubt brought this group together and the realization that everybody’s piece is important, that everyone, for us to have success, for us to succeed, for us to get out of here alive, everyone has to do their part,” Coach John Thompson III said last weekend, looking back on the fight.

“When you’re first building a team, you have to find out if you can trust that person,” senior guard Jason Clark added. “And with everything that happened over there in China, after the whole brawl, we all understood that everybody had each other’s back no matter what. That’s something you don’t wish to happen, but when it happens you want to know that the guy you’re going to battle with every day has your back.”

After that, not much of what the college basketball season could present the Hoyas seemed to faze them. The underrated team surprised observers in an early Maui invitational tournament, then went to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to beat a well-regarded Alabama team on a last-second shot. Last month, as the Hoyas prepared to play bitter rivals Syracuse on the road, coach John Thompson III could joke about the China trip. Asked if any previous away games had helped prepare his young team for the matchup, Thompson deadpanned, “Yeah, the Bayi Rockets.” (Georgetown lost in overtime to Syracuse, which won all but one of its 31 regular season games.)

For the first time in his eight seasons on the Hilltop, Thompson III trusted a deeper bench by playing eight, and sometimes nine, players any given night. Diving on the floor for loose balls and smothering opponents defensively with length like the old-school Georgetown teams was back.

Visiting coaches who came through the Verizon Center kept saying this year’s Hoyas team was less talented—but more of a team than in previous seasons. All but given up on senior center Henry Sims saved his career and might have earned himself a spot on an NBA roster. Clark excelled, making the all-Big East team. The rest of their young teammates became interchangeable parts and looked the part of older, more experienced players.

And when the Hoyas finally did what more heralded teams had failed to do—win their first NCAA tournament game—it was clear how they got there.

“I think that this group quickly learned that for us to have success, we’re going to have to protect each other,” Thompson III said after Georgetown beat Belmont last Friday. “For us to have success we’re going to have to be ready, willing and able to fight for each other. Now, hopefully unlike then, it’s more figuratively than literally.”

Next year, there won’t be any overseas expedition, but the Hoyas may not need another one. Georgetown players won’t have to wear any name tags when the annual Kenner League games start this summer on campus. Seniors Clark and Henry Sims will be gone and surely missed, but if Hollis Thompson decides to stay for his final season to go along with the rising freshmen (especially future star Otto Porter) and what is shaping up as another solid recruiting class, the Hoyas can look to raise the bar by playing into the second weekend of March Madness.

Still, don’t blame Thompson if he seems a bit wistful for the good old days of battling the Bayi Rockets come next November. Basketball diplomacy, it turns out, brought season-long dividends.

“We weren’t picked to do anything in the beginning of the season,” Clark said. “Everybody doubted us.  But as a group we believed in each other, and we proved a lot of people wrong. And I think we just we played our hearts out for each other this whole year.”

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