The Georgetown men’s basketball team is in the midst of the most tumultuous season in recent history, filled with countless highs and lows and marked by scandal. In an up and down year, Georgetown has struggled to break out of the bottom three teams in the Big East and make their mark on the conference. Georgetown will need to significantly improve their play and put up a more united defensive front in order to make a bid for the NCAA Tournament in March.
In early December, sophomore guard James Akinjo and sophomore forward Josh LeBlanc announced they were leaving the team. In the coming days, court documents were made public implicating LeBlanc, freshman guard Myron Gardner and junior forward Galen Alexander in a series of assault, sexual misconduct, and burglary charges. A few weeks later, Gardner and Alexander announced their decision to transfer from the program.
At the time of LeBlanc and Akinjo’s departure, the team was a mediocre 4-3 on the season, with only one substantive win against then-No.22 Texas. The season was already looking bleak and seemed on the verge of collapse. In spite of national scrutiny and internal upheaval, the Hoyas went on the road and notched two statement wins against competitive opponents in Oklahoma State and Southern Methodist. And then they kept on winning: six games in a row, to be exact.
In the absence of the former point guard and second-leading scorer Akinjo, senior guard Terrell Allen stepped up in a big way—dishing out assists, nimbly handling the ball, and efficiently scoring. Similarly, sophomore guard Mac McClung and senior center Omer Yurtseven did stellar jobs of leading Georgetown’s offense. With the dramatically shortened bench, other players had opportunities to fill the gaping holes left by Akinjo and LeBlanc’s departures, and senior guard Jagan Mosely (a constant, solid presence on the team) shined in these moments. Junior guard Jahvon Blair also had several games in which he hit his stride and scored over 20 points. The Hoyas gelled well and they looked strong heading into Big East play. They were even on the verge of breaking into the AP’s Top 25.
And then the ball dropped. With McClung sidelined with an eye injury for the conference opener against Providence, the Hoyas were shaky and vulnerable. They lost by 16 and couldn’t seem to get back on their feet. At the moment, Georgetown is 4-7 in the Big East, scoring two of those wins against a dismal St. John’s team sitting second to last in the conference.
Despite their conference record, overall, the Hoyas have not been playing terribly. They have played highly ranked teams like Seton Hall aggressively, but have failed to secure wins. For example, in their loss to then-No. 11 Butler, Georgetown led by double digits at the half only to collapse in the homestretch of the game.
What dooms the Hoyas time and again is a crippling lack of steady gameplay. For veteran Hoya fans, this is an old, persistent wound. The team cannot consistently pull a lead through to the end, or close a meager gap when it matters. It seems they can only play one half on any given day. With a critically shortened bench, this years-long problem is exacerbated. So then, what does the rest of the Hoyas’s season look like? Are hopes of an NCAA tournament appearance dashed?
After a narrow loss to Seton Hall and an even narrower win against DePaul, Georgetown has seven conference games remaining. Eight of the 10 Big East teams are currently in the top 60 teams in the nation according to the NCAA NET ranking, and five of those teams are in the top 25. While the strength of the Big East may have damned Georgetown’s conference record, it means their tournament hopes are not entirely lost. Any win in the Big East is a solid win in comparison to other conferences, and as Georgetown prepares to face No. 13 Butler, No. 19 Marquette, No. 21 Villanova, and No. 24 Creighton, there are lots of opportunities to pick up quality victories that could push the team over the line on Selection Sunday.
As seen in Georgetown’s first half performances against Butler and Villanova, the Hoyas are capable of competing with these highly ranked teams. To be successful, however, the Hoyas need to focus on keeping their momentum and shots flowing throughout the entirety of the game—high shooting percentages are key in a shooting dominant conference.
Ball movement is also crucial to the Hoyas’s offensive success. They need to use their speed and guard-heavy rotation to their advantage: when Blair, Mosely, Allen, and McClung are all on their game, the Georgetown offense is fast-paced and effective. In regards to individual play, junior forward Jamorko Pickett needs to step up and into his potential as a flexible forward. In a conference with lights-out shooters like Myles Powell, Saddiq Bey, and Markus Howard, Georgetown also needs to play much more unified team defense to guard the 3-point line without leaving the sole responsibility to Mosely, who is generally tasked with guarding these players.
Most significantly, as Big East play continues, Georgetown players must remain healthy. McClung has sat out each of the past three games due to a foot injury and Yurtseven fell in the second half against DePaul, seemingly injuring his ankle. Both McClung and Yurtseven are integral to Georgetown’s gameplay. As the team’s two leading scorers, they drive the offense, and McClung in particular has a knack for making difficult shots when the game demands it. Yurtseven is one of the Big East’s top rebounders and a central feature of the Hoyas’s rotation.
To beat teams like Butler, Creighton, and Villanova, Georgetown does not just need Yurtseven and McClung to be able to play; they need them to bring the assertiveness and aggression they showed in the team’s six non-conference games. While the win against DePaul in the absence of McClung and Yurtseven (in the second half) was impressive and exciting considering the circumstances, if the Hoyas are without these two key players for an extended amount of time, the team is in a bad way for the rest of their conference games. Put simply, all of the stars need to align. If Georgetown can step up its gameplay and stay healthy, they have the potential to snag a couple more wins before the Big East Tournament in March—and beyond
The NCAA Tournament is not, as many cynics may say, a lost cause. Every year, the Tournament takes the 68 best teams in the country, eight of which have to “play-in” to the first round of the tournament. After their strong non-conference wins in December, the Hoyas have not dropped below the 70th rank. Currently, they are ranked 52nd after their win against DePaul. With a few more conference wins—particularly against top 25 teams—and a decent Big East Tournament showing, the possibility of making the NCAA Tournament is not as far-fetched as it may seem.
Head coach Patrick Ewing points to the team’s heart as evidence the season isn’t over yet. “They haven’t quit. They haven’t stopped. They keep fighting,” he said at the post-game press conference after DePaul.
After a season of set-backs, rewards, and failures, this is the mentality the team needs to maintain in order to be a competitive force. Beyond this year, which has been significantly more chaotic than most, the future of the program has strong potential with freshman center Qudus Wahab playing solid minutes this season and two promising recruits in point guard Tyler Beard and wing Jamari Sibley on the horizon. Despite their circumstances, this year’s Georgetown men’s basketball team will strive to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth since the 2014-2015 season, continuing to fight and look ahead, even if they come up short.
Image Credits: John Picker/The Georgetown Voice