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The birth and growing pains of #Mackinjo, Georgetown basketball’s freshman backcourt

Head coach Patrick Ewing with his all-freshman backcourt, James Akinjo (3) and Mac McClung. (Courtesy: Georgetown University Athletics)

WASHINGTON — Patrick Ewing is not happy.

Georgetown has just beaten Richmond, which the Hoyas are supposed to do. But even though they faced a depleted Spiders squad, the game was in question into the final minutes, with Georgetown needing to knock down some late free throws to hang on to a 90-82 win.

“We played terrible,” the head coach snarls to the media after the game. “If we want to beat the teams I expect us to beat, we have to do a much better job.”

There’s always an element of theater in a coach’s postgame news conference. When a game goes well, he wants to make sure he praises the elements that he thinks will lead to future success, to be deferential and praiseworthy of his opponent, to not celebrate too much. In a narrow defeat to a superior opponent, he can be more gracious and supportive. But in a close victory over a heavy underdog missing several stars, the message is loud and clear: This won’t be good enough moving forward.

Ewing understands that nonconference victories don’t mean anything for a program with Georgetown’s tradition, one he was instrumental in crafting as a player 35 years ago. Ewing’s team won all but one game of its 11 pre-Big East slate last year, only to go 5-13 in conference and miss the postseason with a 15-15 record.

He knows that, even with an all-freshman backcourt comprising two exciting youngsters with the chance to restore passion and excitement in the program, the growing pains must happen quickly and be over with soon.

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We’ll have to wait to hear what Georgetown’s freshman guards James Akinjo and Mac McClung think of the beginning of their college career in their own words. The university has a long-standing policy that freshmen athletes aren’t allowed to speak to the media until their spring semester. But the nimble, smooth, four-star point guard from Richmond, California, and the brash, spring-loaded shooting guard from tiny Gate City, Virginia, just across the border from Kingsport, Tennessee, couldn’t be more different at first glance.

They both can score from inside and out, but Akinjo’s attack is more surgical and crafty, as he uses his agility to cut and spin through space. McClung is more of a runaway freight train with the strength to finish at — or above — the rim. Where Akinjo solidly proved himself against talent-rich schools in California, McClung annihilated small-school competition in western Virginia, breaking Allen Iverson’s single-season and career state scoring records.

They aren’t even the only two members of this freshman class getting considerable run: Forward Josh LeBlanc is third on the team in scoring (9.8 points per game) and second in rebounding (6.8). But the anticipation for the backcourt duo had already reached a fever pitch months before the season started.

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How big is the hype?

A video of the two guards playing a practice game of one-on-one, posted in May, has nearly 900,000 views.

They’ve even been given their own hashtag: #Mackinjo. It’s easy to see why with highlights like this Kenner League give-and-go alley-oop from the summer, which makes you wish Vine were still around.

But summer leagues are distant memories once the temperature drops and the real games begin. In the meantime, Ewing is still angry about Richmond.

“If we want to win, and we want to continue to grow, we’re going to have to play harder, share the ball. That’s another thing that we’re not doing — we have to share the ball,” he says.

Does he think that’s something that will come in time, that the problem is inherent to the youth of his …

“Everyone wants to score,” Ewing interrupts, mid-sentence. “I understand that. I played. But you have to make the right plays. If somebody is open, you have to pass the ball.”

Through eight games, only senior big man Jesse Govan is averaging more minutes and points than Akinjo. The assists are also coming — the point guard is averaging nearly five per game — but so are the turnovers. His average, 4.1 per game, is backed up by an unsightly 26.9 percent turnover rate, which ranks Akinjo 56th of the 63 eligible players in the Big East.

McClung, meanwhile, displays confidence beyond his years and a willingness to try to make any play in front of him. He’s not afraid to pull up, but his shooting percentages haven’t followed yet. He’s hitting just 36 percent from the field and a shade under 21 percent from three-point range.

But it’s all been good enough, so far, to dispatch seven of their eight opponents, the lone loss coming to Loyola Marymount in the Bahamas. The Lions are no slouches. But — perhaps like Georgetown — their gaudy 9-1 record doesn’t tell us too much just yet. Their lone top-100 win is over the Hoyas, and they were blasted, 82-58, by UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.

Last weekend, the Hoyas kept it rolling against a good Liberty team, dropping 88 points on a Flames squad that had held its last four opponents in the 50s. Akinjo (19) and McClung (12) joined Govan as the only Hoyas in double figures.

Before the gauntlet of Big East play comes Syracuse, Saturday, in upstate New York. The Orange have continued to sit in their perch as a perennial powerhouse, making the Final Four as recently as 2016, when the Hoyas finished 15-18 and suffered home losses to Radford, Monmouth and UNC Asheville. Georgetown actually beat the Cuse that year, and again in 2017 on the road, before falling in overtime in downtown D.C. last December. So while the final result of Saturday’s game likely won’t tell us much either way about the course of Georgetown’s season, it does serve as the Hoyas’ sternest test before conference play.

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The pregame hype video is now a staple of college hoops. The lights go out and the jumbotron pumps a hip-hop-, or EDM-, or Fall Out Boy-scored supercut of media day poses, game highlights and awkward, would-be candids of the current roster before pregame introductions. With no bank of highlights built up just yet, we see more of the latter when it comes to Akinjo and McClung, including a shot of them walking together through the halls of campus, the signature slumped shoulders of freshmen trying not to look like freshmen.

Then the montage cuts to Govan, looking up with deference at the Sweet Sixteen banners in the rafters. It’s a reminder of the goals the school was used to achieving, what was expected of them, what fans hope this freshman class can restore.

McClung’s first pass against Richmond finds the foot of a defender for a kick ball; later in the possession, he air balls his opening three. The Hoyas loaf out to an uneven start, but it doesn’t take long to see a flash of the potential in action. Govan passes out of a double-team to Akinjo at the top of the circle who slings it to McClung. As the weak side defender scampers to recover, McClung blows past him on the baseline and throws down a two-handed slam.

The dunk gets the fans out of their seats and makes the highlight package on the evening news. But it’s Akinjo’s late and-1 and the six made free throws between he and McClung in the final minute that seal the deal. Those are the plays that will make a coach happy. Those are the plays that will win games.


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