Georgetown basketball’s re-energized, precarious identity after transfers

January 9, 2020

It was the kind of week that can set a program back years and, depending on the fallout, result in total overhaul of the coaching staff and beyond. Or it can be a moment to rally around, to rebuild your identity.

The story of Georgetown’s basketball exodus is still being written, as is the story of the team that remains and whether it can find enough wins in conference play to make a case for the NCAA Tournament.

The foursome of James Akinjo, Josh LeBlanc, Myron Gardner and Jalen Alexander were combining to average 27.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game, with Akinjo starting and playing more than 30 minutes per game at point guard. The other three all left the program in early December after being accused of burglary and harassment — Akinjo left separately, and will head to the University of Arizona.

The departure of all four, midseason, following a tough home loss to UNC Greensboro, looked potentially crippling to a Georgetown squad sitting at just 4-3 in the early season. Then the Hoyas took their short-handed show on the road, capturing big road wins at Oklahoma State and SMU before returning home to beat rival Syracuse, prompting some choice remarks from Orange head coach Jim Boeheim.

“They got rid of a guy that wouldn’t pass the ball to anybody and just shot it every time, and that’s why they’re good now,” he said, clearly referring to Akinjo. “Patrick [Ewing] can’t say that but I can. He lost two games for them by himself.”

The Hoyas managed just a then season-low 11 assists against UNC Greensboro, then went for 16, a season-best 26, and 20 more in the three big wins. In all, the Hoyas rattled off six straight wins.

Mac McClung — the remaining half of what appeared to be the backcourt of the future — suffered an eye injury against American, causing him to miss Big East opener, a 76-60 loss at Providence. He returned to score 20 at Seton Hall which … brought Georgetown to a nearly identical final score line, a 78-62 loss. That was a game in which seven-footer Omer Yurtseven really struggled, shooting just 3-13 from the field. The Hoyas trailed by 17 at the half and never really threatened to make the game competitive.

The big man continued to draw attention Wednesday night, getting double-teamed on a number of occasions. But that just led to more opportunities for others, McClung in particular, especially in the early going. The sophomore scored seven of Georgetown’s first nine points and poured in 21 of his 24 before the break.

The Hoyas showed everything they still can be this season, as well as everything to which they could fall victim Wednesday night. The 87-66 final score in a win over St. John’s — Georgetown’s first Big East victory this year — indicates neither just how dominant the Hoyas were in the first half, nor how close things got to coming undone after the break.

Georgetown broke through the St. John’s pressure and lit up the Johnnies from outside the arc, shooting 8-14 from deep in the first half. Thanks to smothering man defense and cold Red Storm shooting, the Hoyas built a lead as big as 29 and entered the break up 53-26.

But St. John’s turned up the defensive pressure again and saw their traps actually create turnovers and rushed shots to start the second half. The Red Storm came out of the locker room on an 11-0 run, immediately putting the game back within reach. In all, they forced 12 second-half Georgetown turnovers and watched the Hoyas go just 1-9 from deep in the final 20 minutes, but the hole was too deep to climb out of.

“It was a great win,” said head coach Patrick Ewing. “Especially coming off of the two losses that we had.”

But still, for Georgetown, knowing they won’t get that kind of start most games and the cushion to play with, the second half has to be disconcerting, both for the performance itself and for the blueprint of game tape they’ve handed the rest of the Big East.

“I’m sure, especially when teams look at the way that we played in the second half, a lot more teams are going to do it,” said Ewing of the pressure. “We would be one of those teams that would be pressing, we’re just short-handed right now … We work on it every day, so I would think our guys would be used to it.”

The lack of depth doesn’t allow the Hoyas to apply that same kind of pressure on defense, which in turn puts that much more pressure on their offense. The Hoyas were already susceptible to a high-pressure defense, like UNC Greensboro’s, which clamped down for a 65-61 win back in late November, before the defections. That’s only more true now.

They have also proven susceptible to offensive lulls, like the one that saw them score just 11 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half. After scoring 80+ in each of the six wins during their streak, they were held to just 60 and 62 points in their first two conference affairs.

“We still have to finish the game the way that we need to finish if we’re going to continue to win games,” said Ewing.

Aside from some final garbage time minutes Wednesday night, Georgetown rolled with the seven-man scholarship rotation to which they are limited by circumstance right now. Every starter scored in double figures and played at least 30 minutes, with all but Yurtseven — who missed several minutes with a cut above his right eye — playing 35 or more. It’s a tall ask to make night in and night out, both for the fatigue that can lead to fatal mistakes down the stretch, but also for staying 100 percent healthy all season long.

But that’s where Georgetown finds itself: A talented, motivated group that can play with anyone, but that will walk a tightrope each and every game from here on out. It’s a team that can’t afford an off day from its two stars or another injury if it wants a reasonable chance to win any game.

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