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OPINION: Patrick, Play Your Bench or Step Away

Ewing is “running Georgetown straight into the ground”

NCAA Basketball: Georgetown at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Georgetown Hoyas (5-8, 0-2) have been struggling to finish games, again, and the starting five consistently looks like they hit a wall at about the 10-minute mark of the second half. Head Coach Patrick Ewing routinely runs the Hoyas’ starters like every matchup is Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Familiar late-game issues like lackadaisical defense, minimal movement without the ball, and poor shooting are directly attributable to weakened legs.

Moreover, the underutilized bench is unable to get into a rhythm and has scored only in single digits for four of the last five games. It doesn’t seem like a mid-season coaching change is in the cards, but “running Georgetown into the ground” may have a new meaning in 2023.

Playing guards like Primo Spears, Brandon Murray, Jay Heath, Akok Akok for 36+ minutes per game is incredibly short sighted. There are 18+ games left in the season, and a handful of winnable opportunities for the Hoyas. Wins now are still meaningless if the team isn’t improving as a whole towards the end of the season. If Ewing actually intends on finishing this season (or more), and wants to secure a few victories in February, looking longer term is necessary.

Ewing has been unable to build from season to season, from game to game. Growth in depth was the primary reason the 2021 team was able to make a run. Resting the starters and developing the bench can help with fresher legs and team morale—not to mention deterring transfers and helping to build a program.

Spreading minutes—to let the starters rest, as well as develop the bench—is absolutely vital. If Patrick continues to ignore the obvious strains he’s putting on the bodies of these Georgetown student-athletes and the poor results this strategy is yielding, he needs to acknowledge that he is no longer helping the Hoyas players to be in the best position to succeed and step down.

If Ewing is at a place where it is alright to sacrifice sophomore players like former MEAC Rookie of the Year in Wayne Bristol, Jr., New York’s “Mr. Basketball” in Jordan Riley, or Georgia’s First-Team All-State Center in Ryan Mutombo, then maybe everyone inside and outside the program needs to look past the win-loss record and consider the human impact for the 18+ transfers of the Ewing era (2017-2022).

In October 2017, John Thompson told Bryant Gumbel on HBO’s Real Sports that “Patrick will get fired if he doesn’t win” and “they talk about my graduation rate and Big John, communicate with the kids and all that old kinda stuff they say, but it wouldn’t have meant a damn thing if I hadn’t have won, here at Georgetown or any other place.” He’s not wrong, but the leash has certainly been long.

Facing DePaul on Thursday, December 29th—after 9 days of holiday rest—a coach might be tempted to desperately rely on his starters to play 20 minutes in the first half in a short-sighted effort to jump ahead of the team who just lost to Northwestern 83-45. While DePaul is not a situation ripe for revolutionary lineup experimentation, using guys like Jordan Riley, Wayne Bristol, and Denver Anglin more often in the first half can set up a better game finish—and there’s likely minimal harm.

This team undoubtedly has talent. Georgetown looked formidable for long stretches of the game against the No. 2-ranked UConn Huskies. But talent needs management and there is plenty of room for improvement. The Hoyas battling back to close a lead is meaningless when followed by a collapse.

A recent article about Allen Iverson caught a few fans’ eyes the other day, and it mentioned that his Georgetown teammates, based on his physical prowess, thought he was superhuman. The piece points to Kent Babb’s book, “Not a Game,” which details a couple stories where Iverson showcased his athletic superiority.

Apparently, John Thompson would assign laps after a marathon practice if his team had struggled through a session with “sloppy passes and stupid shots,” however, when the team ran, “Iverson would go, cruising past his teammates as they fell onto the floor, laughing as he passed.” No surprise from the speedster.

In another example, Thompson would test all first-year players on a treadmill that would gradually move faster and incline upwards. Babb relays:

A well-conditioned player could usually last ten or so minutes on the treadmill, one of Thompson’s many equalizers to whatever otherworldly talent the player thought he possessed. Williams lasted maybe twelve minutes. After nearly twenty minutes, Iverson still going, they geared the machine down, figuring that was good enough...

Unfortunately, none of these current Georgetown athletes are Allen Iverson. None of these players have the wind to sustain 36+ minutes of playing time. Even if they are in tremendous physical shape, not many players can mentally handle the demands of that much time. Sometimes guys need to watch a bit of the game from the bench with an assistant coach talking next to them.

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These crazy minutes are not helping them. Brandon Murray had 8 turnovers and played 32 minutes against UConn (10 points, 3 assists). Primo Spears had 4 turnovers in 38 minutes (19 points, 3 assists, 8-17 FGs). Akok Akok was 4-7 FGs in 35 minutes (10 points) with 5 rebounds. Jay Heath had 10 points (4-9 FGs), no turnovers, and 6 rebounds in 39 minutes. Wayne Bristol got 4 minutes (0 FGA) and Jordan Riley got 2 minutes (0 FGA). The UConn reserves outscored Georgetown’s bench 23-8 overall and 21-2 in the second half, with Joey Calcaterra scoring 14 second-half points in 12 minutes.

The bench has been handcuffed. In 4 of the last 5 games, the reserves have scored under 10 points per game. Since Texas Tech, the bench has been fed only 12-18% of the available minutes. If you want tougher defense and better shooting down the stretch, this is not trending well.

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BIG EAST games with opponents scoring in the +70s are tough enough to win, but when you get single-digit points from your bench, you’re pretty much fighting yourself. Perhaps Ewing was hoping for Dante Harris to come back and lead a second unit, but he committed to transferring to UVA. Georgetown has to get something positive out of their bench if they want to earn a few wins this season. Encouraging bench production has to start now.

Bristol and Riley deserve more of a shot. Spears, Murray, and Heath need rest.

Denver Anglin deserves a shot.

Of course, a head coach should not be forced to play bench players, just for the sake of spreading minutes, but the current run-them-to-death strategy is not valid. Ewing commented in post-game that he played 48 minutes a night in the NBA, which turned out to be an exaggeration. Even if Ewing were to scale Murray, Spears, and Heath back to 30 minutes, returns could be high. Injecting less experienced players immediately could be tumultuous, but growth through pain is better than no growth. A return to wholesale line changes is likely not the best option, either. Any cookie-cutter approaches to minutes should not be in the coaching toolbox.

Perhaps our pleas for spreading minutes is fruitless and fans are beating a dead horse. Several Ewing supporters have said that the head coach deserves fans’ faith to distribute minutes as he sees fit, based on what he sees in practice (as fans can’t see it). Normally, that might deserve some deference. However, that approach adopts the conclusion that no Georgetown bench players deserve more than 3-4 minutes per game and the starters need to play nearly 40 minutes every game. On top of that sounding insane, it hasn’t worked for Georgetown. Just watch their defense, their off-ball movement, and their reliance on their arms for jump shots. They are tired.

Moreover, advocating to play some bench players is not just about placating younger athletes in order to avoid transfers in this new era of basketball, it’s about developing a team and building a program. There is a win-win opportunity in developing players, even when you’re losing.

Desperation lineup mode may steal a conference win, but it isn’t conducive to discipline and it doesn’t build a program. And if a head coach is no longer interested in developing college players, he definitely should step down.