Markel Starks is out to prove people wrong for overlooking him, Georgetown this year

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source: AP
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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — McDonough Memorial Gymnasium is a relic, a 2,500 seat “arena” that was built on Georgetown’s campus back in the early 1950s. Complete with bleacher seating and a row of doors 20 feet from the baseline, McDonough harkens back to the days before anyone on the Hilltop had heard of John Thompson Jr. or Hoya Paranoia. The gym feels much more like a place to catch a high school game than a Big East contest.

These days, McDonough is generally reserved for volleyball and women’s basketball while the men play across town at the Verizon Center, but it’s still where John Thompson III hosts practice. And it’s still where Georgetown raises banners. When you walk into McDonough and look up at the rafters on your right, you’ll those banners, commemorating trips to the NCAA tournament.

And nothing else.

Since the Hoyas made the 2007 Final Four, Georgetown has gone 2-5 in the NCAA tournament, failing to make it past the first weekend in each of their trips. Making matters worse is the fact that the Hoyas have lost to a team with a double-digit seed in each of those tournament trips: No. 10 Davidson in 2008, No. 14 Ohio in 2010, No. 11 VCU in 2011, No. 11 N.C. State in 2012. It culminated this past season with Georgetown’s most embarrassing loss yet, a whooping at the hands of No. 15 Florida-Gulf Coast, an upset that Georgetown has spent all offseason hearing about.

Being the reason a Cinderella becomes the biggest story in sports is not pleasant.

Gaining a reputation as the trendy upset pick in March is not a legacy to boast about.

(MORE: Check out the NBCSports.com Big East Preview. Where does Georgetown rank?)

“I’m sick of looking up at those banners, not having any letters under it,” said senior point guard Markel Starks. “I have high expectations, not only for myself, but for this team. Every day I have to come in here and look up there, and there’s nothing there. So for me, as a leader of this team, it’s heartbreaking.”

It’s a trend that Starks, who was named to the Preseason All-Big East team, has spent all offseason stewing over. He’ll be a senior this season. His college basketball career is over this spring, and the last thing he wants is for his career to come to a close with yet another upset early in the tournament.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Starks said. “I’ve had fun, through the good and the bad, and I want this senior year to be a good one. But when I think of guys that I really looked up to, the guys that came before me: Roy Hibbert, out in the second round. Chris Wright, out in the first round. Not to take anything away from their career, but I want to leave a legacy. I want to leave on a positive note.”

“Deep in the Big Dance. That’s what it’s about.”

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Georgetown is known for the big men they produce. Under the elder Thompson, those bigs were hall of famers like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. Under JT3, we’ve seem names like Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe and Otto Porter work their way into the first round of the NBA Draft. Even Henry Sims managed to play his way onto an NBA roster.

The Hoyas may have another in their midst this season, as UCLA transfer Josh Smith has been granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. He’ll be playing on Friday, when the Hoyas take on Oregon at Camp Humphreys in South Korea, which gives JT3 an all-american caliber talent in the post if Smith is capable of playing 25 minutes a night.

The big men get most of the attention because of their success at the professional level, but for the Hoyas, it’s just as important for them to have excellent guard play as it is for them to have NBA players in the post. Think about the best Hoyas teams in recent seasons: Hibbert and Green had Jonathon Wallace. Monroe had Chris Wright and Austin Freeman. Sims had Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson.

That’s the role that Starks will play, and he’s talented enough to thrive as one of Georgetown’s primary offensive weapons.

Hell, if you ask him, he may tell you that he’s the best point guard in the country.

“It’s an honor, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s humbling. I feel like I had an outstanding year,” Starks said of receiving all-Big East honors and being named to the Cousy Watch list. “I want to win that award. It’s one of my goals. I haven’t received a lot of the other point guard accolades that I think I should have. I’m ready to check some names off this year. People need to know who I am.”

Starks made sure to run down the public relations checklist, saying that he didn’t want to take anything away from other talented point guards in the Big East and across the country, but having a conversation with him, it’s quite clear that he truly does have the confidence that he can go up against — and outplay — any point guard in the country. The fact that he more than held his own at the Kyrie Irving Point Guard Skills Academy back in June only solidified that believe.

At that camp, Starks went up against the likes of Kevin Pangos, Jahii Carson, Shabazz Napier, Semaj Christon, Justin Cobbs and even Irving. I was there for part of it. Starks more than belonged on that court; there were times that he thrived.

“Those guys deserve all the accolades that they get. But I can play, too. I can really play, too,” he said. “At times, you may not be able to see everything that I can do, but at the camps, I feel like that I outplayed a lot of the guys that get top level accolades. I’ll see some of those guys this year, and that’s where I want to do my talking.”

But it was a conversation with one of those point guards that has really kept things in perspective for Starks. He had a chance to talk with Aaron Craft, the Ohio State point guard that makes up for what he lacks in physical tools and natural scoring ability with leadership, toughness and defensive.

Most importantly, Starks said, Craft’s teams have played deep into March. He’s made a Sweet 16, a Final Four and an Elite 8, and could very well make it that far once again this season.

“Craft gets a lot of [press] because he’s a winner,” Starks said. “He’s a flat-out winner.”

Starks wants to prove that he belongs in the same conversation as the best point guards in the country. He wants to make people look silly for overlooking him. He wants to make us regret not including him on this list of top 20 point guards. He wants to put up the points and hand out the assists and throw the no-look passes and be the big man on campus.

Every athlete does.

But he also knows that will only get you so far if you can’t win when it counts.

“Doesn’t matter what you do individually, if you’re not winning?” Starks said. “You have to win ball-games. On the big stage. I can sit here and ramble on, but I gotta do it in the big lights. It’s not just big games during the season, it’s in the dance.”

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, and Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

 

VIDEO: Jordan Bell’s spectacular chase-down block

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Oregon big man Jordan Bell has been the best player on the floor for the Ducks against Kansas, totally changing the way that Kansas wants to play with his defense.

As of the time of this posting, he had nine points, 11 boards, seven blocks and three assists, but his impact is not solely limited to the shots he swatted — every Kansas player that gets into the lane is very aware of the fact that Bell is lurking around the rim.

The thought of him changes shots.

The best block he’s had today came midway through the second half, when he snuffed out a dunk attempt from Landen Lucas with an impressive chase-down block:

No. 1 Gonzaga reaches first Final Four with win over No. 11 Xavier

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It took 18 long years, but after Gonzaga exploded onto the national scene with a Cinderella run that came one possession short of the Final Four in 1999, after the program followed up that run with back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed, after 19 straight trips to the NCAA tournament marred by moments of unfathomable heartbreak, the nation’s preeminent mid-major success story is finally headed to the Final Four.

What will the ‘Gonzaga is overrated’ crowd say now?

Armed with a roster that included a pair of blue-chip guards in their back court, a trio of high-major transfers and a McDonald’s All-American and future first round pick coming off the bench, Mark Few knocked off No. 11 seed Xavier, 83-59, on Saturday night to win the West Region and punch his first ticket to the final weekend of the college basketball season. Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with 23 points, eight boards and four assists and Johnathan Williams III, who was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player, added 19 points and nine boards as Gonzaga buried 12 threes and jumped out to an early lead they would never relinquish in a game that never felt like it was in doubt.

And with that, the monkey on Mark Few’s back is now gone.

“It means everything that we could deliver for guys like this,” Mark Few said after the game. Few had been the winningest NCAA tournament coach without a Final Four on his résumé. “They believed in us when they came. This is what we wanted to do and set out to do, and these guys were unbelievable. I could not be happier for all these guys, all our former players and all of Zag Nation.”

Whether or not that monkey was deserved is a fair question to ask. Gonzaga has had an incredible amount of success in the NCAA tournament. They’ve won at least one game in 16 of the 19 NCAA tournaments, including this year, that they’ve been a part of, including five of the six years in which they were a double-digit seed. In 13 of the previous 18 NCAA tournaments they played in, they advanced as far or further than their seed suggested they should have. Only five times did they lose to a team that was seeded lower than them. They’ve won 17 WCC regular season titles and 15 WCC tournament titles during that span.

What they’ve done, the consistency of the success that they’ve had, is not something done easily.

And it’s not something that should be overlooked when you consider where this program was in the early 90s. When Few was hired as an assistant coach in 1990, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. The program, located in Spokane, Washington, which isn’t exactly a hotbed for recruiting, had never been to an NCAA tournament. The school didn’t even have a weight room for the team.

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

“Players would sign out sweats and jerseys at the beginning of every school year and turn them back in nine months later,” wrote Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg earlier this week. “Sneakers were the only gear players received new, but obtaining a fresh pair typically required proving the old ones had a hole in the bottom.”

Within five years, Gonzaga was in the NCAA tournament. Within nine years, they had won the league and reached the Elite 8. Within 15 years, the school opened up a sparkling, $25-million, 6,000-seat arena, chartering flights for road games and recruiting trips.

Today, Gonzaga is arguably a top ten program in the sport

It is, quite literally, college basketball’s best rags-to-riches story.

They shouldn’t need this to justify their standing in the sport. Few shouldn’t need this to legitimize himself as something more than a coach feasting on a conference that can’t compete.

“My legacy is I guess built on a lot of other things,” Few said on Friday. “It’s built on the respect my players have for me and how they feel about they were treated and coached and developed and all that.”

“I’m schlepping along right now like vastly far behind my father who is 54 years a Presbyterian minister, man. He’s saved thousands of souls. He’s helped hundreds and thousands of people through all their tough times, you know. And that’s kind of the legacy that I’m looking at.”

But that’s not how our sport works.

March means everything.

If you can’t win on the biggest stage, if you don’t have that level of success when all eyes turn to college basketball, then everything you did during the previous four months is written off.

It’s not fair.

But that’s just how it is.

And now, nearly two decades removed from their introduction into the national consciousness, Gonzaga’s detractors no longer have that leg to stand on.