Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing, center, talks to his players during a timeout in the first half … [+]
In April 2017, Georgetown University hired Patrick Ewing as its men’s basketball coach, bringing in the best player in school history to turnaround a once powerhouse program that had fallen on hard times. Ewing was an NBA Hall of Fame player and a longtime NBA assistant who finally got a shot to become a head coach. He vowed that he would work to get Georgetown back to the Hoya Paranoia days of the 1980s when the 7-foot Ewing was college basketball’s dominant center and teams feared playing the mighty Hoyas.
So far, things haven’t turned out as Ewing or Georgetown had hoped. But on Saturday night, the No. 8 seed Hoyas (12-12) will be back in the national spotlight for the first time in years when they face No. 2 seed Creighton (20-7) in the Big East tournament championship game at Madison Square Garden.
If Georgetown wins, it would make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2015 and cap a memorable run in which it won four games in four days. The Hoyas cruised past No. 9 seed Marquette, 68-49, in Wednesday’s first round game; upset No. 1 seed Villanova, 72-71, on Thursday afternoon when freshman guard Dante Harris made two free throws with 4.7 seconds remaining; and knocked off No. 5 seed Seton Hall, 66-58, on Friday night, outscoring the Pirates 9-1 in the final two minutes.
A victory over Creighton would give Georgetown its record eighth Big East title but first since 2007, a remarkable achievement considering the Big East’s coaches in the preseason poll selected the Hoyas to finish last in the 11-team league.
“It’s not about what other people think of you,” Ewing said. “It’s what you think of yourselves. My guys think very highly of themselves, and I think highly of them, too.”
Still, it was hard to argue with the coaches’ forecast before the season started. After all, the Hoyas finished ninth in the league last season, winning only five of their 18 games. Mac McClung, their leading scorer, transferred to Texas Tech, while Omer Yurtseven, their second leading scorer, declared for the NBA draft even though he had one season of college eligibility remaining.
Georgetown entered this season with nine new players on its roster. And the Hoyas didn’t return to campus until Sept. 11, later than any other Big East program. So, naturally, it took time for them to feel comfortable playing together.
The Hoyas began the season 3-8 and had lost five consecutive games when the team was forced to postpone its Jan. 13 game at DePaul due to a coronavirus issue within the program. Georgetown didn’t return to action for 17 days, finally playing again on Jan. 30 and defeating Providence, 73-72, after trailing by 15 points in the first half. Looking back, Ewing noted the time off came at an opportune time.
“I think the Covid pause gave us an opportunity to exhale and regroup,” he said.
Ewing added that inserting senior forward Chudier Bile into the starting lineup on Feb. 3, an 86-79 victory at Creighton, also helped the Hoyas with his size, rebounding and toughness. Bile, who is averaging 9.8 points and 5 rebounds per game, has started every game since. The Hoyas’ other top players include senior guard Jahvon Blair (15.7 points, 3.8 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game); senior forward Jamorko Pickett (12.7 points and 7.5 rebounds); sophomore center Qudus Wahab (12.5 points and 7.9 rebounds); and Harris (7.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists)
Before this week, Ewing had never won a Big East tournament game as a coach. But he is no stranger to the event or the arena. He won three Big East tournament titles as a player, including winning consecutive Most Valuable Player awards in 1984 and 1985. And he played 15 seasons with the New York Knicks, appearing in 11 All-Star games, making the Hall of Fame and having his No. 33 jersey retired and hanging in the Madison Square Garden rafters.
Still, Ewing claimed on Thursday that the arena’s security personnel “accosted” him and asked to see the credential needed to gain entrance to the building.
“Everybody in this building should know who the hell I am, and I’m getting stopped?,” he said after Georgetown’s win over Villanova. “I was like, ‘What the hell? Is this Madison Square Garden?’”
Ewing said on Friday that he had a conversation about the situation with James Dolan, who owns the Knicks and serves as Madison Square Garden’s chief executive. He wouldn’t disclose specifics of the discussion, but he said “it’s over with.”
That unfortunate incident aside, this has been a nice homecoming for Ewing, who is looking to return to Georgetown to a standard set by John Thompson, Ewing’s college coach. Thompson, who retired in 1999 after 27 seasons with the Hoyas, died last August.
After Friday night’s victory, Ewing said he was thinking about Thompson as well as Mary Fenlon, Georgetown’s longtime men’s basketball academic coordinator who died in December 2019.
“They’re very happy,” Ewing said. “They’re probably even dancing the jig like (Thompson) always says.”
I have covered professional, college and high school sports for nearly two decades. I was a staff writer in the Sacramento Bee’s sports department for four years before