- Covers college basketball
- Joined ESPN.com in 2011
- Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato
ON JAN. 7, Patrick Ewing walked to the dais at Capital One Arena in Washington for a postgame media conference. Georgetown had just lost its Big East opener at home to Marquette, and he was not happy with the 28-point defeat.
“As a player who helped build this program, I am disappointed in my team’s performance,” said Ewing of the 92-64 result, adding, “everybody is on notice.”
“This is not what Georgetown basketball is about.”
Ewing’s sharp words for his team were those of a frustrated coach. But his next statement suggested that both he, and the idling program he leads, have reached a boiling point: “Big John is rolling over in his grave for the performance that we showed tonight.”
Georgetown’s could have been the best story in college basketball when it hired Ewing five years ago to continue the brand built by John “Big John” Thompson Jr. 50 years ago.
Ewing was a giant for the school: In his four years there, he was a three-time consensus first-team All-American and four-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year. He and Thompson won the national championship in 1984, launching the program into national acclaim.
“You had a great season, Pat,” President Ronald Reagan told Ewing at a White House event to celebrate that championship team. “You know, you and all your teammates are going to remember this for the rest of your lives.”
Thompson, the first Black coach to win a national title, and his predominantly Black team were the coolest group in basketball, and Ewing played an important part.
But Ewing’s Hoyas today are just cold.
His comments after the loss to Marquette punctuate a frustration that has been a constant trait throughout Ewing’s time as head coach. After five straight losses in conference play this season, including to Butler and St. John’s, his record at Georgetown is 68-69 overall, and 26-49 in the Big East. He is on track for a third consecutive season with a losing record.
Georgetown is now at a crossroads that will shape its future. While winning last year’s Big East tournament title provided a boost of optimism, it did not solve the program’s woes. Ewing, handpicked by Thompson, has not yet proved that he can lead the Hoyas into a brighter chapter. With Georgetown a heavy underdog heading into Tuesday’s matchup with longtime Big East rival UConn, Ewing, it seems, is running out of time to restore the program he helped build.
Father Raymond Kemp, who was Thompson’s high school classmate and friend and has been closely involved with the program and its players for 50 years, says the former Georgetown star understands his predicament.
“I think he sees it as a work in progress and as a process kind of a thing,” said Kemp, who presided over Thompson’s funeral Mass last year. “And he is very well aware that the pressure to win is on.”
IN OCTOBER 2017, Patrick Ewing walked into Madison Square Garden, where he’d been a star with the New York Knicks in the 1990s. Many in the building stopped to watch as the 11-time NBA All-Star and Hall of Famer strolled onto the court for his first Big East media day as the new head coach for Georgetown.
In a league that featured Jay Wright, then one year removed from his first national championship, Ewing was the star of the event.
“I’m still getting to know them, and they’re still getting to know me,” he said about his new team that day. “And what I’ve been telling both them, and the folks in D.C., is that it’s a building process. We’re laying the foundation.”
After his official duties ended, the 7-footer stretched out in the stands and talked about the assignment he had accepted at his alma mater.
“I have to get on a plane and go recruiting now,” he said.
He did not seem excited.
Months earlier, Ewing had a fine NBA job, working as an assistant coach with the Charlotte Hornets, the team owned by his friend and former Dream Team teammate Michael Jordan. But even with Ewing’s professional success as a player, his name and his connections, he had yet to secure a head-coaching job in the league. That’s when Big John, a one-man search committee, called. His son, John Thompson III, had just been fired by Georgetown after missing the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. He wanted Ewing to consider the opportunity.
“His blood, sweat and tears — my blood, sweat and tears — and the people that came before me, some of the guys on this wall, they laid the foundation for Georgetown to be where it was, and where we’re on our way back to,” Ewing told ESPN last month. “[Thompson] called me when I was in the NBA and told me I need to apply for this job or try to get an interview for this job because, he said, ‘One of us needs to be the coach here.’ And I’m part of his legacy and that’s written in stone.”
Yet, Ewing admits, he wasn’t initially sold on the idea.
“He had to convince me,” he said.
When Ewing was hired, the chatter in basketball circles centered on his willingness to do the things that NBA coaches don’t have to deal with, including academics, recruiting, donor meetings and other administrative duties.
The basketball coach at a prominent university is essentially a Fortune 500 executive pitching his product 24/7. And a program seeking a connection to a new generation of athletes figured that its best player would resonate with recruits, and their parents, in the rich D.C. metro area.
The Hoyas didn’t think they were that far from enjoying another glorious chapter.
Ewing arrived a decade after Thompson III led the program to the 2007 Final Four. Big John’s son had reached the NCAA tournament eight times in his 13 seasons. The expectation around Ewing’s hire was that his name would help the Hoyas secure big recruits, and make another tournament run.
He finished 15-15 in his first season after a 10-1 start.
Before his second season, Ewing landed top-100 recruits James Akinjo and Mac McClung. The Hoyas also had Jessie Govan, a 6-foot-10 center who shot 41% from the 3-point line. Like any new coach, Ewing was adjusting to the gig, but he had upgraded the talent pool for his second year. That team made strides, finishing 19-14 (9-9 in the Big East) before losing to Harvard in the first round of the 2019 NIT.
His third season was pivotal. With Akinjo and McClung in the backcourt and NC State transfer Omer Yurtseven (who shot 55% from inside the arc that season) in the post, the 2019-20 preseason buzz around Georgetown was strong.
The Hoyas would not validate the hype. Another rocky stretch in the Big East — the Hoyas ended the regular season with six consecutive losses, and were then eliminated by St. John’s in the first round of the Big East tournament — punctuated a 15-17 campaign, Ewing’s worst season with the Hoyas.
What came next was far more devastating than a disappointing season: On Aug. 30, 2020, Big John died. The entire city mourned the loss of the legend and wondered how it would move forward. The Hoyas were also in a state of uncertainty. Akinjo and McClung had transferred earlier that year, and Ewing’s presence had not resulted in the success many had imagined.
The Hoyas entered the 2021 Big East tournament with a 9-12 record and, it seemed, no chance to make a run. But Ewing delivered, leading his team to four wins and an improbable Big East tournament championship at Madison Square Garden, his former stomping grounds. On March 13, 2021, Georgetown won the conference title with a 73-48 win over Creighton and earned an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, exactly 49 years after the school hired Thompson and kicked off a new era in college basketball. It was also the program’s first league title in 14 years, and netted star player Qudus Wahab all-Big East tournament honors.
Despite the earlier turbulence and a lopsided 96-73 loss to Colorado in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Ewing and others believed their postseason rally pointed to a turn for the better.
“It was ironic that when we won the championship, it was the same day that Coach [Thompson] got hired all those years ago,” Ewing said. “When you’re going through it, you’re not thinking about that. [I was] thinking about getting these guys ready and right. But it was a great thing to win it.”
LAST MONTH, EWING sat at a table outside his office at the newly christened John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center and held an iPhone that wouldn’t stop ringing. It was 11 a.m., but he already seemed tired, taking a deep breath after the start of a long day, and another long season.
“Give me a minute,” he said, staring at his phone.
After sending a few texts, he placed the phone back on the table.
“Recruiting,” he said, “never stops.”
In the first stretch of the 2021-22 season, there was clear tension around the program as Ewing tried to avoid the tumult of previous years. In moments like this in the past, he says, he would call Thompson, whose mark is illustrated across the campus.
There’s a life-sized statue of the former head coach near the entrance to the team’s practice facility, which he could see from the living room of his house across the Potomac River. In the practice gym, Big John’s chair, with his signature white towel draped over it, is still on the sideline. No one is allowed to sit in it.
Big John’s presence is so strong that Ewing sometimes forgets he’s gone.
“I’ll be sitting in my chair and we’ll be going through practice and I hear the back door over here open, and usually it’s him come shuffling across,” he said. “So the whole year, I’d hear that door jingle open and I’m looking, looking, looking, expecting it’s going to be him.”
The brotherhood Thompson fostered within the program has so far spared Ewing from the level of criticism another coach in his shoes might experience.
Georgetown is protective of its family. Ask around, and you’ll hear the phrase “Hoya Paranoia” often: this idea that the brand and program itself are shielded from outsiders. It’s a component of Thompson’s legacy, which also included practices that were always closed to the media. Worried someone might catch a glimpse of his team as it prepared for its next game, “tape covered gaps in the doorways from the foyer of the athletics building to the gym,” observed USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz, who covered Thompson’s Georgetown teams.
When reached by phone to talk about Ewing, one prominent former player said he wouldn’t do any interviews, and then hung up. The things people are willing to say on the record about Ewing’s tenure are as expected: hopeful.
“He knows what to do,” said former Hoyas player and NBA Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning, of Ewing. “We know what to do. Coach Thompson planted the seeds in us. They’re in us.”
But Georgetown’s résumé thus far includes losses to Saint Joseph’s and Dartmouth. And continuity within the program has been difficult to maintain.
Ewing has shown that he can sign top players, a product of his effort on the recruiting trail and the long-lasting power of the Georgetown brand he represents. Convincing them to stay, however, has been his greatest hurdle.
Through June 2021, 11 players have transferred during Ewing’s tenure. Wahab left for Maryland in April 2021. Reserves Jamari Sibley (UTEP) and T.J. Berger (San Diego), who had both logged fewer than 10 minutes per game last season, soon followed suit.
“I think it is a challenge, but you have to embrace it,” said Georgetown athletic director Lee Reed, of recruiting. “You have to lean in. And that’s what we’re trying to do. You can’t moan and complain about how it is. You really have to embrace it: the transfers, name, image and likeness — everything that goes into recruiting and sustaining a great program today. If you don’t lean in, you’ll fall behind.”
Aminu Mohammed, the star of the No. 14 recruiting class in 2021 per ESPN, now represents a potential building block for the program. The five-star prospect, who moved from Nigeria to D.C. as a high school freshman, is doing it all for the Hoyas, averaging 13.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG and 1.5 SPG.
“For me, it’s just coming and continuing that legacy,” Mohammed said. “[Ewing] always preaches every day how they helped build this program and he says we can do the same thing. We just gotta go out there and give all of our effort and try to be one of those greats.”
The Prince George’s County area has been a recruiting gold mine for generations. Adrian Dantley, a Notre Dame star in the 1970s, was born there. Then came Maryland star Len Bias a decade later. Kevin Durant (Texas) and Michael Beasley (Kansas State), 20 years after Bias, led the next wave of talent from the local pipeline. In this decade, the area has produced stars in Luka Garza, the former Iowa star who won the Wooden Award in both 2020 and 2021, and Kris Jenkins, who made the game-winning shot in Villanova’s win over North Carolina in the 2016 national title game.
In 1984, seven players on Georgetown’s national championship team were from D.C. or Maryland. Basketball insiders in the area believe the school’s ticket to another fruitful chapter will start at home. But Georgetown has struggled to land top talent in recent years. The school hasn’t signed a D.C. Gatorade Player of the Year selection since Chris Wright in 2007.
“I think that Georgetown should get back to those graces by doing a better job in our area,” said Angelo Hernandez, a local high school and grassroots coach. “Sometimes, I wonder how they [top recruits] get out of here.”
IN THE FIRST half of Georgetown’s 88-69 road loss to St. John’s on Jan. 16, Mohammed stumbled up the floor, lost his dribble and committed a turnover that the Red Storm converted to a bucket on the other end.
Mohammed seemed aimless in what would become another lopsided loss for the Hoyas.
Unfortunately, the team’s on-court challenges have now joined the off-court obstacles the program faces as it prepares for UConn. Multiple key players have missed time due to injuries or COVID-19 protocols, with the program shut down from Dec.18 to Jan. 7 and adding a layer of rust to a team struggling to find its rhythm. Ewing’s absence from two conference games due to health and safety protocols has only intensified its recent issues.
Some of those on-court challenges are obvious. The Hoyas play a style that conflicts with the modernized version of positionless basketball, and makes it tough for the team to turn the corner.
With three 7-footers, including the 7-2 Ryan Mutombo (the son of NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, another Georgetown star) on the roster, it’s sometimes difficult for the Hoyas to rotate on defense, which leaves them vulnerable. Too often, they get beat off pick-and-roll action and crushed on fast breaks.
In the blowout loss to Marquette, the Golden Eagles scored 56 points in the paint and 23 points on fast breaks. Opposing teams have made 52.1% of their shots in transition, per Synergy Sports data, which gives Georgetown’s fast-break defense a “poor” rating.
On offense, the Hoyas have made nearly 37% of 3-point attempts, a plus that usually allows a team to stretch the floor and create more space inside the arc. But the Hoyas have made just 45.1% of their attempts inside the 3-point line.
Mohammed, the team’s offensive leader, is a talented freshman wrestling with youthful flaws. Per hoop-math.com, 65.7% of his shots come at the rim, a sign of his aggressive approach; but he has made just below half of those attempts.
Those are the numbers.
But you don’t need them to see the accumulation of doubt that has covered the team. When the Hoyas get into tough situations, they visibly seem lost and unsure. When they get behind, they look around, hoping someone might save them from themselves.
They’re in the middle of a mess they don’t know how to fix, and you can see it.
“Just get better,” Ewing said last month, about what he tells his team. “You hear my voice is gone. Because I’m always trying to yell and scream, trying to get them to do the things I know we need to do to be good. We have talent. It’s not about the talent. It’s about us locking in to accomplish the things we want to accomplish.”
You won’t hear many influential Georgetown figures publicly question Ewing’s future. He’s still surrounded by people who seem optimistic about his potential. On campus, it’s blasphemous to criticize a former player with his status.
It’s fair to wonder, however, how long Ewing will stay at Georgetown. A private university, the school doesn’t have to disclose information about his contract. In 2017, however, Ewing reportedly signed a six-year deal worth nearly $19 million. He is in his fifth year of that deal.
If Georgetown can’t drastically change its season in the weeks ahead, then the school will face questions about its next steps and the future of arguably the greatest player in its history. John Thompson III was fired for less, proving that an appetite for struggles is conditional, even with a coach who has close ties to Big John.
When you sit across from Ewing, you can tell he’s trying. He’s trying to figure it out. He’s trying to motivate his players. He’s trying to win games. And, above all, he’s trying to make Big John proud. It’s a pressure only he fully understands.
“The weight that he’s got of Thompson on him … it’s a ‘Let’s see how this all works out’ [situation],” said Kemp. “I think he’s aware that he doesn’t have forever to see how that works out. But I think he’s giving it his damnedest and I think they’ve got a good relationship, [he and school officials]. I also think he’s very well aware of the business side of college athletics. That, ‘If we got it going, we’ll keep it going. If we don’t have it going, maybe it’s time for me to think about doing something else.'”
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