There will be a 2020-21 season for the Georgetown men’s basketball team, and that statement alone is cause for celebration. Not because this incarnation of Hoya basketball carries the lofty expectations that used to come with being a NCAA Tournament mainstay or even the measured “team on the rise” optimism of 12 months ago, but because if there’s one thing this program that has been dealt blow after knockout blow of late needs, it’s to endure the growing pains that come with another hard Blue & Gray reboot as soon as possible.
Head Coach Patrick Ewing’s fourth year in charge will feel like a pure Year Zero, in program-building parlance. An eternity ago, in fall 2019, Georgetown was tabbed as a sleeper candidate to break into the Top 25 after a 2018-19 campaign that yielded wins over Villanova and Seton Hall and another five conference losses by six points or fewer. Led by the sophomore triumvirate of James Akinjo, Mac McClung, and Josh LeBlanc along with the arrival of transfer Omer Yurtseven, the arrow on GU’s outlook was decisively pointing upwards.
After a rocky start that included a second-half comeback necessary to beat Mount St. Mary’s and a wake-up blowout loss to Penn State, the Hoyas took major steps forward at the 2K Classic, cruising past No. 22 Texas before giving No. 1 Duke all they could handle in the tournament final.
Then came Dec. 2, a day which began one of the most tumultuous stretches in recent program history. First, an official memo stated Akinjo and LeBlanc’s desire to transfer. Two days later, civil lawsuits were filed against LeBlanc, Myron Gardner, and Galen Alexander, leading to the departure of all three players from the program. Soon after, prized 2020 recruit Terrance Williams decommitted from the team. In the blink of an eye, four players accounting for 45% of the team’s minutes in that promising Duke game and a top recruiting target had moved on from GU.
Down to just six players who had featured up to that point, the Hoyas battled and reeled off a six-game winning streak that featured victories against Oklahoma State and Syracuse to close non-conference play. But you can’t lose almost half of your rotation and emerge from the grind of a Big East schedule unscathed. Georgetown showed impressive resolve given the circumstances, which included injuries to McClung and Yurtseven, but managed only five wins in its 18 remaining contests and lost its Big East Tournament opener to St. John’s by 13.
To add insult to injury, McClung announced his own intention to transfer after the season. The divorce was particularly messy, as Ewing had announced that McClung would be part of the 2020-21 roster a few days prior. Citing having “no choice but to transfer,” the Hoyas’ most persistent offensive threat packed his bags for hoops-related reasons, as his backcourt mate Akinjo had done just months earlier.
Finally, on August 31st, news broke of the largest loss of all: the death of John Thompson Jr. There aren’t enough column inches to summarize the titanic impact Coach Thompson had on college basketball, Black America, or Georgetown while leading the Hoyas to 596 wins and the 1984 national championship. Thompson was still a fixture in the last seat at the end of press row this past season, and when GU tips off against UMBC on November 25th, it will be the program’s first game without the man who made Georgetown basketball mean something.
It’s against this backdrop of seismic upheaval that the latest 16-man unit in kente cloth will debut. To date, nine contests have been scheduled for the Hoyas. After the UMBC opener, Georgetown will stay at home for games against Navy, West Virginia, and Coppin State. Then the team will dive headfirst into conference play with immediate tests from Villanova and Big East prodigal son UConn. Two road games at St. John’s and Seton Hall will lead into the holiday break, after which the Hoyas will travel back north to square off against old foe Syracuse.
For those of you keeping track at home, that’s two quality non-conference opponents and three teams picked in the top five of the Big East preseason poll on the abbreviated docket for a Georgetown team that returns only four players that saw significant minutes last season. If that sounds intimidating, don’t tell the Hall of Famer tasked with keeping this ship afloat.
“We had some adversity in terms of guys leaving,” Ewing says. “But in life, you’re going to have some bumps in the road. What defines you is how you come out of it.”
For the Hoyas to navigate past those recent bumps, they’ll need immense senior leadership from two members of Ewing’s first recruiting class that have earned this opportunity to step into the spotlight: wing Jamorko Pickett and guard Jahvon Blair.
Pickett has been a regular throughout his time on the Hilltop and had his moments in an increased role last season, averaging 10.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. With length to spare at six-foot-eight and a solid three-pointer he shot at a 37.6% clip in 2019-20, the Hoyas are hoping the DC native can put it all together with smart decision-making and consistent shot-creation in his final go-around.
Blair, meanwhile, was the biggest beneficiary of last season’s roster exodus. After appearing sparingly in the 2K Classic, Blair became an all-situations player almost overnight and went on to log at least 37 minutes in the Hoyas’ last eleven games. Ewing needs Blair to improve on his 32.6% three-point percentage and show renewed commitment on the defensive end this season.
Elsewhere, sophomore center Qudus Wahab is the Hoyas’ most promising returner. Wahab had to earn his minutes behind Yurtseven last year, but forced his way onto the floor as the season progressed, displaying ridiculous strength and impressive coordination for a freshman big. Qudus will feature nonstop in 2020-21 as he continues developing his court awareness and offensive arsenal.
The team’s chances of staying in the mix in the Big East will require a few newcomers to prove the evaluations they got from recruiting services and other programs wrong. That’s at positions one through four, where Blair and Pickett represent Georgetown’s only holdovers.
In the backcourt, Jalen Harris, a graduate transfer from Arkansas, brings much-needed major-conference experience. Harris’ numbers took a step back last season under new Razorbacks coach Eric Musselman, but he can provide defense and playmaking after averaging 30.8 minutes and 5.6 assists per game in 2018-19.
Scoring should come via Donald Carey, another grad transfer who plied his trade at Siena. The six-foot-five Carey was efficient in a volume role for the Saints last season, shooting the three at 38.2% while converting 82.4% of his free-throw tries. Both Harris and Carey figure to feature in the Hoyas’ plans this season.
Opportunities will be available for the three freshman guards Georgetown brings into the fold, the most promising of whom may be Kobe Clark, a six-foot-four St. Louis native.
At the three and four, help for Pickett arrives from Northwestern State in the form of a third grad transfer, Chudier Bile. Bile had his way with the low-major Southland Conference last season, scoring inside and out while grabbing 7.6 rebounds per game to draw interest from Power 5 schools. He’ll need to cut down on his fouls in a major way after committing 6.0 violations per 40 minutes or Ewing will be forced to run his wing depth ragged.
Jamari Sibley enters the program as the Hoyas’ most touted recruit. The Milwaukee transplant will draw comparisons to Pickett due to their similar frames, and Ewing has stated his desire to use Sibley to defend multiple positions. Expectations will be tempered regarding Sibley’s offensive output, but his athleticism and length should carve out a 15-to-20 minute role from day one.
Lastly, spelling Wahab will be sophomore center Timothy Ighoefe, who was buried on the bench to begin the season but saw time after a February injury to Yurtseven. In limited action, Ighoefe displayed a penchant for rebounding (and fouling) last campaign, but there appears to be considerable potential for growth when combining the Nigerian’s imposing six-foot-eleven stature with Ewing’s tutelage.
Give the Georgetown staff credit for assembling this roster. They certainly didn’t land every prospect they were targeting in the past recruiting cycle, but pulled talent from across the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and Southeast after the surprising scholarship vacancy. Looking toward 2021, Ewing and Co. have already secured commitments from a four-man class that currently ranks as the 22nd-best group in the country, per 247Sports.
Until then, it will be fascinating to see who rises to the occasion for these Hoyas, of whom expectations have been muted for the moment. Ewing undoubtedly put on legendary performances practicing in McDonough Gymnasium for a national championship team some thirty-five years ago, and now he’ll be back in the same building leading a squad that was picked last in the conference preseason poll. That’s a daunting task, but this is the same man who was a three-time All-American while being bombarded by racial epithets in nearly every arena he played in while at GU. There aren’t any All-Americans on this basketball team, but in 2020-21, Ewing will find the players who are buying in to what he’s selling and forge onward from there.