With Saturday’s humbling loss to UConn, the end to another season of Georgetown men’s basketball is in sight. These Hoyas deserve to be celebrated in another column, not only because they battled through internal COVID-19 issues to cobble together a more or less complete season during a pandemic, but because they did so with a certain chutzpah and cohesion you wouldn’t expect from a group that’s been together for a matter of months.
You could argue that this team has the most tangible identity of any of head coach Patrick Ewing’s squads to date. They seemed to be playing loose, they seemed to know the product wouldn’t always be pretty, and they were eminently likable. Again, this group has been together for no time at all, but they appeared to be the Ewing-era team most committed to executing an X’s-and-O’s scheme. I have to use qualifiers here – “seemed,” “appeared,” and the like – because it’s possible the departures of Akinjo, McClung, & Co. still sting and I’m simply imagining improvement. And I prefer to use the first-person here because the student-program relationship feels more intense at a smaller school where there’s no FBS football team and you (used to) constantly see these guys grabbing lunch behind you or studying one table over in the library like any other student.
It’s not tough to be a Georgetown fan – at this point, the whole thing is just fun. To us, many players just kind of showed up and sometimes take shots that compromise your last vocal chord, but sometimes the shots go in, and besides, we admire their courage in a season like this. Ewing has sweat a bucket at the under-16 timeout of the first half, Fox Sports’ C-team announcers are offering on-the-spot sweeping assessments of players, and the postgame interview is shot in front of a low-quality green screen sponsored by PNC Bank, which is definitely getting an interesting return on investment there.
The point is, the whole thing is very much ours. This isn’t the program that’s had three top-ten NBA draft picks in the last fifteen years or was a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2013. Nobody in Oakland is wearing Hoyas warmup jackets around town like they did in the ‘90s. Georgetown is everyone’s “old favorite team” or their “old bitter rival,” and national writers occasionally tweet about how cool it would be to have a big-time brand in DC again before hunkering down to write about a different team they’re actually doing a full-length feature on.
But for those of us that are left, you can’t back out now. You knew this season would be long, but you’re leaving the year more hopeful than you entered it. Maybe you point to Jamorko Pickett and Jahvon Blair as evidence of player development within the program, or the scoring touch displayed by Qudus Wahab as a sophomore big, or the program’s evaluation skills now that they look like they have some real young players in the form of Dante Harris and TJ Berger, who were both lightly-recruited.
But the other reason you’re in this thing for at least a little while longer is because of Aminu Mohammed and the Hoyas’ 11th-ranked incoming recruiting class.
Students I shoot the breeze with about this stuff tend to speak about these five high schoolers in Hollywood hyperbole. Tyler Beard is Benny Rodriguez from The Sandlot, the ringleader and social media ace recruiter of the group, wise beyond his years because he did a post-graduate campaign before coming aboard. Jordan Riley is Boobie Miles from Friday Night Lights, the physical marvel who will make magic happen every time he touches the rock. Jalin Billingsley is Kenyon Stone from Coach Carter, the underrated player perfect for our system with the size to contribute soon. Ryan Mutombo plays Adonis Creed, proud to continue his father’s legacy but hell-bent on beginning one of his own. And Aminu Mohammed, oh boy. Landing Aminu was apparently bigger than Eastern State landing Darnell Jefferson in The Program and holy crap he’s a five-star and that’s like what Kentucky gets and holy crap that’s like 67 percent more stars than we’re used to dealing with.
These players are definitely talented, but recruiting is only a part of the equation in college basketball. For all the hoopla the NBA generates and the resulting focus on the NBA Draft, the Association is looking at the college level through an entirely different lens than college hoops fans are.
The 2018-19 season was the last full season at the college level. Here are how the top freshman from the 2018 class and their teams fared:
RJ Barrett (#1), Cam Reddish (#2), and Zion Williamson (#5), Duke – ridiculously talented players, who led the team to a third-placed finish in the ACC. The Blue Devils flirted with death in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 and Sweet Sixteen before being bounced in the Elite Eight. All three went pro after the season.
Nassir Little (#3), North Carolina – averaged 18 minutes per game before declaring for the NBA Draft.
Bol Bol (#4), Oregon – Played in nine games due to injury.
Charles Bassey (#6), Western Kentucky – Led a Hilltoppers team that went 11-7 in Conference USA play.
Romeo Langford (#7), Indiana – Led a Hoosiers team that went 8-12 in Big Ten play.
Anfernee Simons (#8) – Turned pro out of high school.
EJ Montgomery (#9), Kentucky – Averaged 3.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game on a stacked Wildcats team.
Quentin Grimes (#10), Kansas – Averaged 8.4 points and 2 assists per game for the Jayhawks.
Simi Shittu (#11) and Darius Garland (#14), Vanderbilt – Garland played in only five games due to injury, but the Commodores finished 0-18 in the SEC despite boasting Shittu and lottery pick Aaron Nesmith.
The top recruits from the 2019 class, who played in a season cut short before the NCAA Tournament:
James Wiseman (#1), Memphis – Played in only three games before leaving the Tigers amid an NCAA investigation.
Anthony Edwards (#2), Georgia – Led a Bulldogs team that went 5-13 in the SEC.
Isaiah Stewart (#3), and Jaden McDaniels (#8), Washington – Led a Huskies team that finished last in the Pac-12.
Cole Anthony (#4), North Carolina – Played one season for a Tar Heels team that went 14-19.
The three 2018-19 All-America teams featured one freshman – Zion Williamson. So did the 2019-20 All-America teams – Vernon Carey of Duke. The 2018-19 national champions, Virginia, didn’t have a freshman averaging over five points per contest. Across Final Four finalists Auburn, Texas Tech, and Michigan State, Aaron Henry of the Spartans led all freshmen with an average of 6.1 points per game. Kansas finished #1 in the final AP poll of the 2019-20 season and its top freshman averaged 5.3 points.
The last player I’ll mention is Romeo Weems, a wing with athleticism and toughness in the Class of 2019 who was getting some five-star love in the recruiting rankings. Sound familiar? Weems committed to DePaul and the onus to revitalize a downtrodden program was immediately pinned on the shoulders of him and coach Dave Leitao. But the Blue Demons are 5-28 in Big East play since Weems arrived. And while he’s a perfectly serviceable player, averaging around eight points and five boards, Weems’ first two seasons have been nothing to write home about.
Am I missing some outlying freshman standouts as a casual fan of the sport? Definitely. In fact, it was the individual and team success of five-star freshmen like Ziaire Williams (Stanford) and Evan Mobley (USC) that made me think of this idea. But it’s hard to argue that, for all the talk of one-and-dones and how these uber-talented players have to humor the NCAA for a season before making millions in the NBA, freshmen don’t usually come in right away and dominate. It’s even more rare for a freshman or group of freshmen to lead a top team in college basketball.
That matters for Georgetown fans, and leads me to the same conclusion ahead of next season. First, if the 2021 recruiting class is looked back on as the group that breathed new life into the program, it largely won’t be because of what they do in 2021-22. And if the 2021-22 season is looked back on as the campaign that changed the direction of the Ewing era, it largely won’t be because of the 2021 recruiting class.
Ewing has never been afraid to throw freshmen into the fire right away, and it really hasn’t mattered how many stars they had attached to their recruiting profiles. Those players, like Wahab, Harris, and Berger, have emerged battle-tested because of it. As a result, the Hoyas already have building blocks for the future on the roster. That’s the group that will be leaned on next season, even before considering the unlikely potential returns of Pickett and Blair.
Georgetown has a fantastic incoming recruiting class. But there’s a learning curve involved for the newbies, and mediocre teams don’t generally become something more than that over the course of one offseason. It’s hard not to be excited about the future of the program, especially with the steps the team has taken down the stretch. Yet patience will be paramount.