No pain, no gain: Men’s basketball winter recap

Published January 20, 2024

Photos by Daniel Rankin; Design by Graham Krewinghaus

Last spring, it was difficult to imagine there had once been a time where teams were afraid to play Georgetown. The legendary “Hoya Paranoia” era of the 1980s was long gone, and the Blue and Gray had managed to scrounge up only two BIG EAST wins that season, which was somehow two more than the year before. Then, to the dismay of Friar fans everywhere, Ed Cooley stepped up to the plate for Georgetown. Could he be the spark this team needed?

To be frank, the preseason expectations for this team were far from spectacular. Rebuilds take time, and remarkable turnarounds are rare in the first year of a coach’s tenure.

Cooley was truly starting from scratch with his roster this year—senior guard Wayne Bristol Jr., senior guard Jay Heath, and junior center Ryan Mutombo were the only three players returning from Coach Ewing’s final Georgetown team. Cooley was forced to rely on the transfer portal and four walk-ons to fill out the bench, perfectly demonstrating the difficulties of starting a program from scratch.

With all this in mind, it makes sense that the bar for this team was pretty low. Cooley admitted from the beginning that year one would likely be a rough ride for fans, but he encouraged the Hoya faithful to keep their eyes on the prize: very much long-term success the likes of which could be seen on the Hilltop in previous decades. Despite these warnings (and a bottom-of-the-conference prediction), the team entered the season with energy, hoping to exceed expectations and make a statement.

It would be inaccurate to say that they were fully successful. The Hoyas lost to an atrocious (352 out of 362 teams on KenPom) Holy Cross team in the second game of the season, were handed a controversial and truly gutting defeat at the hands of TCU, and were juiced by longtime rival Syracuse.

With that being said, there’s no denying that non-conference play had bright spots. After a deeply embarrassing loss to American last year, the Hoyas claimed redemption in overtime this season. They won close games against the likes of Jackson State and Merrimack, demonstrating an ability to finish strong in crunch time. Finally, in their last game before BIG EAST play, they beat Notre Dame on the road in overtime. None of these wins were exceptionally impressive, but after years of watching tight contests slip away, fans were thrilled to see a bit of grit from this squad.

The Hoyas were also plagued by injuries, with graduate forward Ismael Massoud breaking his hand in a preseason scrimmage and sophomore guard Jayden Epps sidelined with an illness to close out non-conference play. The Hoyas played only two non-conference games (TCU and Syracuse) with their entire rotation, making it difficult to gel ahead of conference match-ups.

The Hoyas opened up BIG EAST play on the road with a 74-64 trouncing from a surprisingly stout Butler team, followed by a 81-51 road loss to then-No. 6 Marquette, both times managing to keep things close through only 10 to 15 minutes. Back home, Georgetown blew a close matchup against Creighton in the second half, losing 77-60 in a series of events all-too-familiar to those who followed the team during the Ewing era. 

The Hoyas kicked off play in the New Year at home against fellow conference-cellar-dweller DePaul in a must-win game for the Hoyas. Although their victory was close—winning by only three points—it felt like an effort switch flipped for Georgetown. Maybe all of their rotation players had finally been healthy long enough to build some chemistry. Or, as was in the case of junior guard Dontrez Styles, they wanted it more. Styles pulled down six offensive rebounds, saying in the postgame presser that he’d been “disgusted” watching film of himself just standing there as the ball went up.

The Seton Hall game was a continuation of that flipped switch. Despite the Pirates pulling ahead 18-4 early on, the Hoyas kept playing hard. They clawed their way back into it, cutting things to two at one point before the Pirates regained momentum to finish the half up 39-31.

After a slow start to the second half, the Hoyas reapplied the pressure, slowing the Pirates’ scoring and grabbing defensive rebounds wherever they could. Jay Heath hit a three-pointer to make things 62-61 Seton Hall, and on the next possession, Bristol Jr. grabbed an offensive board and laid it up to give Georgetown the lead. Epps hit a two-point jumper on the next possession to put the Hoyas up 65-62. 

It was then, with only three minutes left to play, that things turned sour.

Four possessions in a row, Georgetown turned the ball over. They put up a few more points, but it wasn’t enough. Between a couple of questionable foul calls on the Hoyas and the turnovers that put an end to their run, the Pirates ended up on top, 74-70.

Although the Seton Hall loss was disappointing, two things stood out as positives: grit and student turnout. The Hoyas, Bristol Jr. in particular, played not only like they wanted to win, but like they knew they could win, even when down by double digits. The student section was nearly full, and the atmosphere was electric. 

Moving forward, expect some BIG EAST wins from the Hoyas. They’ve shown that they have what it takes to hang with good teams; they just need to play hard for all 40 minutes. They’re nowhere close to being a tournament team this season, but they already have more wins than each of the past two years. Ed Cooley has given Hoya fans something that they haven’t had since the 2021 BIG EAST tournament run: hope. 

Today, it’s not so difficult to imagine a second era of Hoya Paranoia in the not-so-distant future.

Lucie Peyrebrune
Lucie is the Sports Editor and a sophomore in the College studying Political Economy and French. A DMV native, she is a big fan of DC sports teams (especially the Wizards and the Spirit) and anything USWNT-related.

Jo Stephens
Jo is the Sports Editor and a senior in the College studying History and Journalism. Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, she has a particular love for women's basketball, but also enjoys watching football, softball, and volleyball.

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