Coming off an exhilarating, unexpected run through the Big East Tournament, Georgetown met an all too familiar fate on Saturday, bowing out in a 96-73 blowout to 5th-seeded Colorado. The loss was a sad end to a season that started with low expectations but saw the Hoyas develop a real identity as a team and take steps back toward relevance as a program.
Watching the Hoyas get ball-screened ad nauseum triggered traumatic flashbacks to the JT3 era. Buffalo guard McKinley Wright THE FOURTH lived up to the hype, repeatedly presenting the Hoyas with a tough choice: either keep Wright out of the lane, bringing help to cede an open shooter or two on the perimeter, or lock down the perimeter, and let Wright do as he pleases within the arc. As it turned out—trick question!!—both choices led to disaster.
But for the opening minutes, the teams looked ready for a nip-and-tuck battle. Georgetown got a few clean early post looks for Qudus Wahab, and moved the ball around well enough to find a couple of open jumpers. On the other end, Colorado swung the ball from side to side, but Georgetown seemed to be closing out just as well on perimeter shooters. A few minutes in, the teams were knotted at 7. The Hoyas had survived their typical opening sputter, with senior guard and leading scorer Jahvon Blair primed to bring some offensive juice off the pine.
Instead, the rout ensued. Georgetown proceeded to score zero points in more than four minutes, turning the ball over on three of four possessions and getting precious few paint touches, whether by penetration or by post. The Hoyas got frustrated, quickly, shoving off on a drive, and settling for long mid-range jumpers, rather than attacking the rim and hunting the open three.
By the time the Hoyas found any offensive touch, the Buffalo attack had kicked into high gear. Wright got into a two-man game with forward Jabari Walker, a springy stretch big who shot 49 percent from 3, albeit on just 1.5 attempts per game. On consecutive possessions, Wright drew the attention of Wahab and Dante Harris, before kicking out to a popping Walker, who buried a three each time, thereby surpassing average heaves from deep. The next time down, Wright dialed his own number, attacking the basket to draw a foul, leading to two free throws that he sank to put Colorado up 11.
The margin still stood at 11 — not great, but not out of reach — when Timothy Ighoefe found himself free, with the ball, inches from the basket, ready to rock the rim. All he needed was for an airborne Walker to descend from his misguided attempt to block Big Tim. But Walker returned to Earth, not peaceably, but by committing a foul that would have earned a Bill McCartney-coached squad a 15-yard penalty and possibly an ejection.
But today, Walker was assessed merely a Flagrant 1, leading to two Ighoefe free throws. He missed both, then committed an offensive foul on the inbound, then after a Colorado three-pointer, missed the front end of a one-and-one. Presented with the chance to close the gap, the Hoyas simply couldn’t.
The lead then grew to 15 — bad, but again not beyond hope. Wahab’s reentry into the game gave the Hoyas some hope offensively, as their starting big man got deep post position a couple of times. But Georgetown’s twos were no match for the onslaught of Colorado’s threes. Buffalo wing D’Shawn Schwartz made four treys in as many minutes, the last three coming on consecutive possessions to push the lead to 24 at the half. The blowout was fully in effect.
Things didn’t really get better after that. Having been scalded by shooting that Colorado would struggle to replicate in an empty gym, Georgetown often hewed close to the Buffaloes’ hot hands after the half. That opened up the interior for Wright and his bag of tricks. The senior guard proceeded to set up or score 9 of Colorado’s first 12 points out of the break, as the margin continued to grow.
The rest of the game was largely academic. Colorado shot a preposterous 58 percent from two, 64 percent from three, and 85 percent from the line. Georgetown shot under 40 percent from the field and beyond the arc, and had to work for every look. Harris shot just 3 of 12, while the seniors were just as quiet: Jamorko Pickett was 3 of 13, and Blair a mostly absent 2 of 6. As with too many NCAA Tournaments before, this Georgetown run ended not just with disappointment, but with humiliation.
The punctuation was perhaps the only familiar thing about this weird season. This team didn’t get into the gym together until September, when it welcomed a full class of freshmen and nearly as many transfers. There was a lot to replace: two stalwart veteran guards had graduated, as had Georgetown’s primary post threat, and a volume scoring guard. None of the newcomers profiled as a surefire immediate contributor, and, of the returning Hoyas, only perhaps Wahab seemed ready to take a leap.
Early on, Georgetown looked like a team of new and mismatched parts. The Hoyas survived their opener against UMBC, but then suffered an embarrassing, late collapse against Navy. Disappointing results continued, as Georgetown exited the Carrier Dome after a loss to Syracuse at just 3-8.
And then the Hoyas got a three-week midseason break, an unexpected pause for Covid protocols. When they returned, Georgetown looked rejuvenated, if not necessarily an entirely new team. Harris had taken over at point guard, Chudier Bile had replaced Donald Carey in the starting lineup, and the rotation had sorted out a bit. The Hoyas pulled off a narrow win against Providence, then a shocker at Creighton.
Georgetown proceeded to win six of ten after the pause, swapping Carey back in for Blair but not really missing a beat along the way. Four years in, coach Patrick Ewing has sometimes seemed to thrive during the bleakest times, and that was particularly the case this year, when he took to slow-cooking some gumbo in the season’s darkest days.
Even so, the Hoyas arrived in New York as just the 8th seed in the Big East Tournament last week, which looked more like a pleasant bump than a full-scale surge. That happy late-season revival appeared to be all that was afoot when Georgetown dominated Marquette on opening night in a game that, as it happened, got Steve Wojciechowski canned.
That narrative started to change the following day, when Georgetown rallied back from double digits down against Villanova to win by a single point thanks to clutch Harris free throws. The freshman point guard had officially arrived, eventually earning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award as the Hoyas won a tense Friday night semifinal over Seton Hall and then routed Creighton in the championship.
Today was the photo negative of last Saturday. Whereas Creighton missed and missed amid swarming Georgetown defenders until the Bluejays were seeing ghosts, Colorado enjoyed comically wide spaces on the perimeter, and converted those looks with improbable ease. While aggression begat aggression for the Hoyas last Saturday, it did the same for the Buffaloes today. In both games, the result was in hand shortly after the half.
So, what do we make of this? From my perspective, it’s hard to say. There’s a strong faction of the fanbase that seems intent on qualifying last week’s achievements with all the yeah-buts: Georgetown’s middling record in the four years under Ewing; the embarrassment of last season’s exodus; the early-season struggles; today’s letdown, and the strategic mistakes that accompanied it. A second subset, probably larger, and also more easily summarized, showed up for the first time all season today, saw familiar disappointment, and won’t be heard from again for a long while.
Here, we’ll find a group that probably is more optimistic. Sure, we expected more from that initial recruiting class than zero NCAA Tournaments and a mass transfer. And sure, we hoped to be further along than where we are now. But last week rocked, an NCAA Tournament appearance was house money, and we have positive momentum and a kick-ass recruiting class heading into next season. The false start stalled our progress, but we’re on our way.
Having summarized those camps, here is where I stand. First, life offers far too few opportunities to enjoy a true success from our sports teams. A Big East Tournament championship is one such opportunity. Those who choose to qualify a title with all of the possible caveats can do so, but I won’t. But it’s a goddamned championship, and I’m going to savor it.
Relatedly, there’s far too great of an effort, whatever your big picture opinion, to fit the latest result into the first paragraph of your pitch, or your obituary, as the case may be, for the Ewing Era. Were this any team but our own, we wouldn’t give Ewing full credit for Creighton’s avalanche of missed shots last week, any more than we’d give him full blame for Colorado’s flood of made threes today. The results of each game are far too random to attribute the results to the coach, and in turn to reassess his tenure. So, we all need to relax a little bit.
Third, four years ago, and particularly two years ago, I frankly thought we’d be better than we are right now. I thought Georgetown would have made the tournament as an at-large, or maybe by winning the Big East. I believed in Ewing, and in the ‘18 recruiting class. If you’d offered me a guarantee of one automatic-qualifier bid, a 12 seed, and a blowout loss in the first round, I would have taken my chances.
Fourth, last year, I thought we really might be headed for a Chris Mullin-esque end to the Ewing era. We hadn’t made the tournament, and the vaunted recruiting class had imploded. We’d survived a noble but futile battle to the finish line last season. Guys were leaving, and the replacements seemed to be warm bodies. There didn’t seem to be a plan beyond the length of Ewing’s admittedly ample reach.
Fifth, progress isn’t linear. Last week may have been a huge leap forward, and today a step back. Whether it nets out to overall progress is up for debate, but programs don’t just add wins on wins continuously.
But sixth, however tardy, I think we’re headed in the right direction. On the court, I believe that Georgetown has the backbone—a culture-setting point guard and a modern, mobile big man—to lead a resurgence over the coming seasons. I also think that the Hoyas’ incoming pieces will provide high-level athletic talent, especially on the wing, in a way that fits with Wahab and Harris. Whatever today’s shortcomings, the coaching seems to have improved over the past season, particularly on defense. And the past week has given the program momentum and its first blip on the national radar in several years.
Neither the most cynical or the most delusional can say what comes next. Two years from now, will we be looking back at the improbable run to a Big East Tournament title as both a minor achievement and the only true highlight of Ewing’s time at Georgetown? Or will it be what kick-started the Hoyas’ return to national prominence, the first, and least likely, NCAA Tournament berths among many to come? I’m not ready to rule out either possibility.
I know I’ll be along for the ride. And after the year we, and Ewing, and Georgetown basketball have all had, I’m glad to have been able to watch, suffer through, and ultimately enjoy another season. Hoya Saxa.