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OPINION: Hoyas Can Make Statement Against PSU

Can Hoya-fans expect a step-up in performance like last year’s Gavitt Game?

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Georgetown v Illinois Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Not many Hoya-fans, including myself (whipple), are feeling extremely confident as the Georgetown Hoyas host the Penn State Nittany Lions in the 2019 Gavitt Games on November 14, 2019 at 6:30 PM (FS1).

A lot of people, including Patrick Ewing and friend-of-the-lunch-blog Ben Standig of The Athletic believe that the Hoyas can further “wake up.” Some fans are going a bit further in their suggestions, despite the small amount of minutes played so far. I’m just looking for a statement from this team.

I previously wrote that this Penn State game is the “[f]irst true test after two prior tests and before even more true tests” to highlight that this game, while a big one, is not a must-win. This is game 3 and there is a lot of basketball to be played this season. Perhaps it won’t even be the biggest game of November, let alone the non-conference schedule. However, as a fan, I don’t actually believe that nonsense—this game is huge.

To me, this game will show whether this team has the potential to perform to the level of expectations. Those expectations—which we and the team are now apparently free to articulate without fear of jinx—are making the NCAA tournament (and beyond).

The problem is that this Georgetown team does not look like a tournament team right now. I do not believe the issue is talent. I also don’t think it’s as simple as “well, there are 6 new players, who are learning to play together...,” but it could be a matter of figuring rotations and minutes out. I do believe that GU, especially under Ewing, plays down to opponents and is prone to big runs. However, I don’t even see the seeds of an adequate defense to withstand those runs on the way to a successful March. Yet.

Fans are craving for a modicum of progress from the first two games and, for a handful of key returning players, some evidence of growth since last season. The hope is (yes, a Hoyas win, and) that this game against Penn State provides visible clues for fans as to whether this team is a strong NCAA contender or just the subject of “there’s still hope!” tweets. The Hoyas don’t need to reiterate expectations, they can simply tell us what type of team they are with their energy and effort in this game.

Where I personally draw the arbitrary measurement line is whether the Hoyas play as well against PSU as they did at Illinois last year. I don’t necessarily need a win, but I do need to see something as good as beating the Illini this year to get my hopes up. (OK, I need a nice win, 81 - 74.)

This season’s start is very similar to the first two games of last season. Feel free to check the box scores for games #1 (UMES) and #2 (Central Connecticut State). Those games were miserable. As a second year head coach, Ewing, with Jessie Govan, James Akinjo, Mac McClung and others, beat UMES 68-53 with 19 ugly turnovers, and let CCS score 52 points in the second half of a 85-78 win.

McClung scored 8 and 4 points, respectively, and shot 6-20 FGs, 0-7 3PT (this year: 7 for 19 FG; 2 for 8 3Pt). James Akinjo scores 8 and 13 points, respectively, and shot 4-18 FGs, 3-10 3PT and had 7 assists in each game (this year 9-23FG, 5-14 3PT, 12 total assists). Josh Leblanc played 15 minutes in game #2 with 4 points and 2 rebounds (11 pt, 11 rbs in 23 minutes of the UMES game). Ewing was clearly figuring out who was on the team and coming close to floundering in the first two games, even with a weak non-conference schedule ahead of them.

This time last year, no one was buying what Ewing was selling. No one on the team was shooting well. The rebounding was based on being taller than the opponents. And defense still looked optional. Fans latched on to positives, but no one believed that team could contend in the BIG EAST. Then the Hoyas traveled to Champaign, Illinois for a Big Ten match-up.

The game was fun to watch and got most of us (too) excited about the potential of the young core. Check out the Casual Coverage including the recap, some analysis by Bobby, and the post-game links acknowledging the special night that the young Hoyas had. While Illinois turned out to be not quite as good as expected, and they were missing a key piece, the win was easily Ewing biggest non-conference victory at the time (and still might be).

There were exciting plays, good ball movement, a semblance of defense, and decent lineup changes by Ewing. The highlights were popular and the names of James Akinjo and Mac McClung were more than whispers—there was a measurable improvement for the gif-friendly freshmen. Akinjo scored 19 points on 6-11, missing two threes but making all seven free-throws, and McClung scored 12, shooting 6-10 on 2FG, but still missed four three-pointers. LeBlanc was 7 for 9 from the field for 14 points, along with 7 rebounds (4 ORBs).

The team looked ready to compete at the next level. The bandwagon was filling up. The Hoyas looked like demons of yesteryear’s collapses were slayed by good, aggressive guard play. They finished very strong.

While we won’t talk about the roller coaster of the Jamaica trip or the ultimate fate of the year, last season’s Illinois win demonstrates that things can sometimes come together quickly for the Hoyas. The Hoyas may step up to bigger competition when called upon and it can seemingly happen overnight.

With the PSU game on Thursday, Ewing had a handful of days of preparation and study from last week’s game-tape. Issues of poor shooting, ball movement, and lineup flow may not be completely ironed out until late November (OK, December at the latest?), but rest assured that there is a precedent for a switch to be flipped.

The end of year expectations are higher this year, but he needs the same kind of renewed team effort as last season’s Gavitt Game. This iteration of Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown team may come together and start to “click” against a team when they find a sense of competitiveness and urgency. We’ve already seen a glimpse of this light-switch effect this year at the close of game #1. It can happen on Thursday at 6:29 PM.

After two games, neither Ewing nor fans believe this team is where they should be. However, with a strong performance on Thursday night, we can easily write off these first two games against Mount St. Mary’s and Central Arkansas—much like we forgot about Central Connecticut and UMES. Conversely, the lack of solid execution would bring questions I’m not quite willing to consider including bench depth-size and, potentially, bigger changes in back-court minutes distribution.

Ewing has tried to build his team on heart and aggressiveness, so it’s time to see if they rise to the occasion with the step-up in talent-level.

Again, this Penn State game is far from a must-win for the Hoyas in game #3, but it is a chance to make a statement. Fans are dying to see something that might demonstrate this team is on-track for a tournament bid and more. If they have something worth saying, let’s hope the Hoyas recognize that this Gavitt Game could be another statement.