What a difference one week can make in March.
Last Tuesday, Georgetown Coach Patrick Ewing had yet to win a Big East Tournament game in his four-year tenure. But that was before his Hoyas won four games in four days to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden.
The week had a little of everything, from a fantastic finish against Villanova, to a late game shutdown of Seton Hall, to an absolute dismemberment of Creighton. The end result is that the Hoyas are dancing for the first time since 2015. And as has been the case when he was a player, defense was the difference last week for the coach: The Hoyas held their opponents to 54 points per game on 37% shooting (and 26 % from three-point range) while winning the battle of the boards by eight rebounds per game.
“Dante (Harris) did an outstanding job of hawking the ball. Jamorko Pickett did a great job against one of the elite players in our conference — in Mamu (Seton Hall big Sandro Mamukelashvili). Everyone did something positive the week to help us be here today.”
If you weren’t familiar with the name Dante Harris at the beginning of the month, you’re not alone. The D.C. freshman didn’t start at the beginning of the season, but has since matured into a primary contributor, averaging 30.2 minutes per game (the third highest on the team). On his way to averaging 12 points, five rebounds and three assists in the Big East Tournament, Harris hit the game-winning free throws with 4.7 seconds left in the upset of regular season champ Villanova.
“He’s had some growing pains that he had to go through,” Ewing said. “He’s a very good defender, we need him to defend the ball to the best of his ability — and I think that helps us to win.”
Harris is one of six freshman on this year’s roster tasting the NCAA Tournament, while the two four-year seniors on this squad get to experience a taste of March Madness, something the previous two senior classes missed out on.
Jahvon Blair settled into his role coming off of the bench (averaging 15 points during the Big East Tournament) while Jamorko Pickett led the team in scoring during the semifinal win over Seton Hall.
“They’ve had their ups and they’ve had their downs and right now I think they’ve come back on the better side,” Ewing said. “There’s still a lot of growing that they have to do. They still have to stay locked to be able get the job done. We’ve just started this journey.”
As previously mentioned in this space, Georgetown’s First Round matchup with Colorado is winnable. But even if the Hoyas go home empty, they’re back in the conversation; because success breeds confidence, which in theory, breeds more success. And for the first time in a long time, there’s an offseason of optimism in Northwest D.C.
The Midwest Regional begins with Big Ten Tournament winner Illinois, features an intriguing 8/9 game between recent Final Four Cinderella Loyola (Chicago) and ACC Tournament champ Georgia Tech, and involves a “semi-local” showdown between No. 3 seed West Virginia and Morehead State (Morehead, Kentucky, is only an hour from the West Virginia state line). And No. 10 Rutgers is back in the Big Dance for the first time since 1991, or three conferences ago for the Scarlet Knights.
Speaking of Rutgers, Coach Steve Pikiell’s team is a No. 10 seed and faces a Clemson squad that is coming off getting upset in the ACC Tournament. Junior guard Ron Harper Jr. is the type of player who can put a team on his back. Defense travels to the NCAA Tournament, and Rutgers led the Big Ten in blocked shots while ranking second in steals. Could they also throw a scare into a No. 2 seed Houston that wasn’t as tested while winning the AAC?
No. 3 seed West Virginia has dropped three of four, and its three wins since Feb. 20 have come against Big 12 bottom-feeders Kansas State and TCU (twice). And instead of the usual defensive dynamo coached by Bob Huggins, this year’s Mountaineers have scored their way to victory (second in the Big 12 in scoring and three-point shooting) while their First Round foe Morehead State ranks 26th nationally in scoring defense. The potential Second Round foe is either San Diego State (14 straight wins) or Syracuse (the always tough 2-3 zone and the hot-shooting Buddy Boeheim).
Illinois has a dynamic guard in Ayo Dosunmu (21 points, six rebounds and five assists per game) and a dominant center in Kofi Cockburn (17 points and 10 rebounds). They led the Big Ten in shooting as well as rebounding margin, and enter the tournament having won seven in a row. They’ll get at least four more and return the Illini to the final weekend of the season for the first time since 2005.