It has been a roller coaster of a ride in our nation’s capitol in the past few months and weeks.
The Nationals of Major League Baseball won the World Series championship. The Redskins of the National Football League are in the cellar of the NFC East. “Hail to the Redskins” has been replaced with “Go to Hell ‘Skins” from the stands. The Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League won the Stanley Cup in 2018 and the President of the United States is facing impeachment charges from politicians in Congress. Could anything else go right? Could anything else go wrong? How about both.
The Georgetown Hoyas basketball program has been on such a ride as of late. It is a ride that Head Coach Patrick Ewing would rather not go on… but such is the life of a coach in college basketball today. Especially one trying to bring back the aura and prestige of a program that was all the rage in the 1980’s.
Imagine a Duke program once Coach K retires. Imagine a Kentucky program once John Calipari calls it quits. Imagine a North Carolina program without Roy Williams walking the sidelines. This has been such the case since John Thompson Sr. left the sidelines of Georgetown University. “Big John” as he is affectionately known by his peers left huge shoes to feel when he left the Hoyas in 1999 and the program has been ok …but not anywhere near the place that Coach Thompson took it in the 1980’s.
Here is a coach who brought in the likes of Sleepy Floyd, Allen Iverson from Bethel H.S. in Virginia, Alonzo Mourning from Indian River H.S. in Virginia and Dikembe Motombo. Throughout the 1980’s, Thompson replaced players in his program like a machine and that machine resulted in what we now know as Hoya Paranoia. Hoya Paranoia being the term that told teams…. beware of the Georgetown Hoyas! These teams didn’t just play with skill, they played with swagger. They played with a togetherness that you just didn’t find on many teams. They played as if the whole world was against them…. and to them… sometimes it probably felt as if they were. They played to the beat of their own drum…but like them or hate them, they beat that drum together.
The Georgetown Hoyas were the team from the District of Columbia that were the beasts of the newly formed Big East. A new conference with other beastly teams such as Connecticut, St. John’s, Villanova, Boston College, Providence, Seton Hall, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. This wasn’t just a conference of basketball teams, this was a basketball hotbed with teams recruiting from locations like New York City and Rucker Park and the streets of New Jersey at St. Anthony’s Prep under the direction of Bob Hurley Sr.
In the 1980’s, basketball reigned supreme on the East Coast and teams from the Big East were the symbol of it. The Georgetown Hoyas, led by John Thompson Sr. and player Patrick Ewing, were one of those teams. Now it is nearly 40 years later and the college landscape has been flipped upside down. Football is the king of revenue and with that comes power. Power to change the landscape and geography of conferences where teams play for championships and the big money revenue that comes with it. The Big East was not immune to conferences grabbing schools and forming power conferences. Schools such as Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Boston College all joined other conferences all in the name of football. The Big East is still remaining a strong relevant conference in college basketball though. The Villanova Wildcats, led by Jay Wright, have won two national championships. The Butler Bulldogs, brought to relevance by former head coach Brad Stephens to two straight national championship games, are now members of the new Big East. Then there is Georgetown.
After stepping away from the sidelines, the Hoyas have not been the same since John Thompson’s departure. Gone was the aura and the sense of swagger that Georgetown basketball carried with it for so long. A few coaches have come and gone since that time and done ok…but the name Georgetown has not drawn the fear and dread that it once did. Now enter the big man…. Patrick Ewing.
Patrick Ewing is a name associated with greatness. Love him or hate him…he has been the face of teams and organizations and has brought success with him everywhere he has been. In college, he was the face of Georgetown and led the Hoyas to a national championship, three national championship games and four Final Fours. He was drafted by the New York Knicks and while he may not have won an NBA Championship while he was a Knick, he was loyal to that organization and was the face of that organization. It is the reason that if Patrick Ewing still had game today at his age, the Knicks would gladly hire him and put him in a jersey. Ewing is still beloved in New York City today because of his loyalty to New York City and to the Knick organization. He is a Hall of Famer, a Dream Team member… a gold medal winner alongside other legends like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, John Stockton, fellow Big East legend Chris Mullin of St. John’s, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley………the list goes on. This loyalty that resides inside Ewing is what brought him back to his alma mater.
After his playing days, Ewing became a coach in the NBA and helped lead the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. He even worked as the interim head coach for the Charlotte Bobcats. It was his love for his college team, the Georgetown Hoyas, and his loyalty to want to bring back the passion for the team from D.C. and his love for a man that treated him as a son, in John Thompson Sr. ,that brought Ewing back to coach the program that made him their favorite son. How much respect does Ewing have in the Hoyas program? The coach he came in and replaced was none other than John Thompson Jr., the son of his head coach in college. How did John Thompson Sr. feel about that? He was never so proud to have a man who he loved like his own son take over the program that was once his. Ewing’s love for Thompson was evident in a recent postseason victory interview as he had a towel across his shoulder and told his coach he loved him as his old college coach lay in the hospital.
Now Ewing is at the helm of the program in his third year and has been bringing in players to try and turn this thing around. This is where the roller coaster begins. As a coach, if you have ever been apart of a successful program, you always remember what it was like as a player…or as a coach in that program… and the formula of what it took to get to that point of success. You remember the type of swagger your team had. You remember the skill it took to be what you wanted to be. You remember what that team chemistry felt like and how great of a feeling it was to see a team come together. Sometimes that hopeful optimism can be a good thing… sometimes it can be a bad thing. For Ewing, the past three years have been nothing about his coaching as it has been his belief in his players.
Patrick Ewing is not dumb. He knows basketball and he knows greatness when he sees it. Coming in as a college basketball head coach…he did not have the pedigree of a Coach K, a Roy Williams or a John Calipari. That is a pedigree that is earned over time. Ewing has only been known as a great player….not as a great coach. Anyone who has watched the Hoya program over the past month is finding out one thing….. Ewing is also a great coach. How is this so? Coaches not only teach x’s and o’s, they look to build relationships and try to get their players to buy into a belief that is real and evident and something that they believe will give success. Put yourself in Ewing’s shoes. Could you imagine being the face of a program and everything you say and everything you do is put under a microscope? In his first recruiting class, Ewing recruited James Akinjo from the San Francisco Bay area of Oakland, Josh LeBlanc from the Louisiana capital city of Baton Rouge, Grayson Carter from the Lone Star State metroplex of Dallas…and Mac McClung… as the media put it… a viral youtube sensation. Out of those four players, only Mac McClung from the small rural southwestern mountain town of Gate City, Virginia (population 1,900) remains and is showing himself to be the great player that Ewing recruited him to be. Akinjo and LeBlanc entered the transfer portal about two weeks ago. LeBlanc was the focus of allegations of theft and assault along with current Hoyas, Galen Alexander and Myron Gardner. James Akinjo has left the program for details that have not been given.
As a coach, one of the toughest things to do is to be real with your personnel. As a coach, one of your jobs is to put together the players with the most skill and the most chemistry. This is tougher than it looks. No doubt, Akinjo was a truly great player with some great skill about him. Josh LeBlanc also brought great energy whenever he entered the game…. but something just wasn’t right. For nearly two years, the Hoyas played competitively and played tough. They also looked, at times, as if they were competing more against each other than the other team. Ewing has had one of the toughest jobs in the country the past couple of years. He has tried to rebuild a historic program in his image and in the image of the guy who coached him. Ewing has also tried to bring back the aura and prestige that is Georgetown Hoya basketball…. and all that belief and hope comes from an undeniable loyalty to his program and a belief in the players that he recruited. It is a belief that John Thompson Sr. once had in him.
This is, though, a different time than the 1980s. There is more of an ego to players who enter this game from high school than what used to be seen nearly 40 years ago. Forty years ago, it was very rarely unheard of for players to skip college and enter directly to the NBA. Forty years ago, it was almost unheard of for players coming to college only to look to learn what it takes to get to the NBA instead of getting an education from a bonafide great academic school. This is the day in which we live though. This is the evolution of the college game. Ewing’s belief and optimism in the players he recruited was for the right purpose. In the long run, it was the players who chose their destiny. James Akinjo left the Hoya program and entered the transfer portal after the loss to UNC-Greensboro. Listening to the announcers before the game against Oklahoma State, the Hoyas dreams of a season that would end playing in the NCAA Tournament were all but dashed. Media outlets gave the Hoyas a 15% chance of defeating the Cowboys on their home floor in Stillwater. After that game it was going to be another long road trip as the Hoyas would go to SMU and take on the NIT Preseason Champion and undefeated Mustangs in Dallas. Without Akinjo and LeBlanc, members of the Big East All Freshmen Team from last year, it was going to be a lost cause. The Hoyas could not do it without them.
Enter Patrick Ewing…. enter the new Georgetown Hoyas. It is hard to say but easy to speculate about what happened that caused James Akinjo to leave. It is pretty obvious what occurred for Josh LeBlanc to leave. Patrick Ewing is about his team and his players. Ewing is about greatness for the Hoya program, on and off the court. If that means going down on a sinking ship that plays the way he believes the Hoya program ought to play, then he is a captain that will go with a sinking ship. He took over the Hoya ship to repair it… to make it worthy of a battleship…not a cruise ship where everyone relaxes and gets a drink and piece of cake. Ewing wants warriors… soldiers who are going to man up and fight in the trenches as one unit. This is what the teams he played on were like. They came at you in waves. This is what any coach wants out of his team. This is the hopeful optimism that a coach tries to bring out and push out of his players. Greatness. To function as one fist and not five fingers. If you see anything out of this Georgetown team now, it is that they are something that you never would have said about them about a year ago. This Hoya team is starting to look a little scary.
Watch them play the past two games…….. as a basketball coach myself… it is so easy to see. The Hoyas are enjoying playing with each other. If you have any of their games recorded as I do, seriously… watch them play. Their body language is evident. They have given more high fives and pats on the back to each other and gave more fist pumps in the air in the past two games than in the past year combined. They don’t pound the floor on defense to try and flaunt themselves individually…they pound the floor as a unit saying, “come get some of US!” They grin…they laugh. Let’s face it…. they actually enjoy playing basketball and playing basketball with each other! That was something that was not evidenced in the past year and a half. You could see tension on the faces of players even when they were winning. This was not a team playing together….and no matter how Coach Ewing tried to make them believe what it took, the belief never took with some of them. It is one thing to have players who are highly rated, who are highly skilled and who play with the swagger you desire. It is also another thing to have players who are also very coachable and will sell their soul out for the betterment of their team and for the love of their teammates. Such is the case for the Hoya basketball program right now.
The Capital Centre in Washington, D.C. should be a fun place on Saturday. The Hoyas, coming off of this two game road win streak against Oklahoma State and SMU, will be facing an old Big East rival in the Syracuse Orange… now of the ACC. Anyone who has watched the Hoyas play the past couple of years should note that this game should be more of what Georgetown fans have been clamoring to see the past couple of years under Ewing.
In the past two games since Akinjo and LeBlanc left the program, the Hoyas have a total of 42 assists for an average of 21 assists per game. Before Akinjo and LeBlanc left the program they had a total of 100 assists in 7 games. Playing as they are now… if the Hoyas continue this great team play, they will be averaging 147 assists in 7 games since the players left. In game play, that is a total of an extra 94 points a game. Ewing has preached over and over that to win, the Hoyas have to compete and battle together. They must play together as a team and defend but they also must score and make each other better in the process.
They have a group now that is taking his coaching wisdom to heart and believing in one another. Terrell Allen, a transfer from Central Florida, had 10 assists and zero …. count it… zero turnovers in the game. In the games since Akinjo has left, Allen has 15 assists for the season compared to just three for the three games previous the breakup. And the great thing about Allen, he isn’t about the points. He is about his team. It is evident just by watching him play that he loves to win no matter what his stats are. Yurtseven, the transfer from NC State, looks like he is just so much more comfortable and has settled in so much better knowing how the ball is moving around the perimeter and coming to him. It doesn’t seem like such a struggle for him as he isn’t having to find the ball…the ball is finding him. Mac McClung… the lone survivor from Ewing’s initial recruiting class. What has he done? In the past two games, he has averaged nearly 25 points a game, 5 assists a game and while he does have an average of 3 turnovers per game… his turnovers are the result of his aggressive mindset. Something that head coach Patrick Ewing loves out of him. McClung, Allen, Pickett, Blair, Mosely, Yurtseven, Gardner, Alexander…. this group has become something to watch. They are playing with a togetherness that Ewing could have only dreamed about seeing a few years ago when he took this job. The satisfaction of seeing his team playing with this new found joy and togetherness was evident on Ewing’s face as you saw him actually smile on the sidelines toward the end of the SMU game.
I have talked to and spoken to Patrick Ewing. Coach Ewing is a great man and a very humble man. No one should never and can never doubt his loyalty to his alma mater and what he wants out of it. The loyalty that Ewing has shown to the places he has been is uncommon this day and time. It is something to be respected…. and let it be known that Coach Ewing is every bit the coach that Georgetown wants and needs.
This Saturday will be a true test of where this Georgetown team is now. If I am a Hoya basketball fan at all, I would want a ticket to watch this new version of the Georgetown Hoyas take on Syracuse in the Capital Centre and make it a party atmosphere. Why? Because this is not the Hoya team you are used to watching the past couple of years.
The past couple of weeks, we have watched college basketball teams play in games dedicated to the lifelong dream of Jim Valvano and his desire and goal to rid the world of cancer by playing in games called the Jimmy V Classic and such. Sometimes teams, like people, have attitudes that are cancerous to them. Sometimes it is these cancers that deteriorate a team and hinder its capabilities of becoming great and experiencing greatness. It is only once an answer is found for the cancer that the person, or the team, can have a chance at becoming whole once again. For Georgetown, Saturday is all about becoming whole once again. This game against an age old Big East rival in Syracuse is not so much about the tradition of Hoya basketball as it is beginning a new one.
Coach Ewing…. Hoya Paranoia was left for a day and an age when you helped make your alma mater great. Before Hoya Paranoia can exist, people have to have some Hoya Hysteria. Hoya fans need to have a little craziness about them… and Saturday could not be a more perfect time and place for that to happen.
Georgetown Hoya fans….you have a head coach in Patrick Ewing who has preached belief in the process and belief in each other for two years now… and now you have a group of Hoyas who are all in and bought in and playing together like a machine possessed.
Saturday should be a fun day of college basketball….. around the nation and most of all in Washington, D.C. Hopefully for this Hoya basketball team…. the roller coaster is about to become a torpedo… and the Big East Conference is the target!
Hoya Hysteria! I feel its about to become real!