Patrick Ewing often thinks back to that moment in October, when his Georgetown squad was voted to finish last in the Big East’s preseason poll.
The coach understood the reasoning; the Hoyas lost several key players and were coming off a sub-.500 campaign. And there were plenty of moments this season, too, that made the preseason poll seem awfully clairvoyant — like their 1-6 conference record before a coronavirus outbreak postponed four games.
But now, thanks to a stunning conference tournament run that included four straight wins and Georgetown’s first Big East tournament title since 2007, the team will be playing its next game as a surprising No. 12 seed taking on No. 5-seeded Colorado on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“Started at the bottom,” rapper Drake’s famous line about overcoming long odds, came to symbolize the Hoyas’ season, Ewing said Saturday.
“I keep talking about that Drake song. He’s probably getting some more money now that I’m saying it so much,” Ewing said postgame.
Early in the season, when the Hoyas built leads only to squander them away, the team suffered from a lack of preparation time. Most of their offseason work occurred over Zoom calls, and as they tried to integrate nine new players onto the roster to make up for the flurry of departures — including Mac McClung, an all-freshman team selection who left for Texas Tech — there was a steep learning curve.
That led to the tepid beginning to the season and a five-game losing streak between December and January. Then came a coronavirus-induced pause that could’ve compounded issues but seemed to have the opposite effect.
“Everyone stayed locked in,” guard Jahvon Blair said. “We missed about four games. After that … we just turned it around, just turned the whole switch. Everyone’s happy, everyone’s talking, everyone’s playing Georgetown basketball.”
That’s when Georgetown showed its first signs of real promise, riding Blair, Jamorko Pickett and Chudier Bile to two straight wins out of the pause — and six wins over the next nine games. Those three players, plus forward Qudus Wahab, averaged double-figure point tallies for the Hoyas this year.
Even with that late-season surge, though, a 16-point loss to Connecticut in the regular-season finale might’ve tempered expectations heading into the conference tournament.
But by the time the Hoyas arrived at Madison Square Garden — where Ewing spent 15 seasons playing with the Knicks — there was something different about the squad. The late-season lineup change that made Bile a starter paid dividends. And the team as a whole improved defensively.
“We work on defense every day,” Ewing said. “And for the better part of the year, I’ve been kicking myself, saying, ‘What the hell am I not doing right?’ But we picked the right time to get it done.”
There was the first-round win over No. 9-seed Marquette, and a second-round upset against top-seeded Villanova. Then came the results against Seton Hall and Creighton, putting the finishing touches on a remarkable run to secure the Hoyas’ first Big East tournament title since 2007 and their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2015.
For Georgetown, the feat is a major step forward for a program that has slumbered in past years in comparison to its former dominance.
And for Ewing, who spent 15 seasons as an NBA assistant before Georgetown hired him in 2017, this title shows what he can do as a coach. He was an 11-time all-star with the Knicks, but he’s in a new chapter of his life. Coaching the Hoyas hasn’t always been easy, either.
But if Georgetown started at the bottom, the team can look up at its Big East tournament title and upcoming March Madness trip as signs of how far it has come. The same goes for Ewing.
“I’m here where a lot of people didn’t think I had the ability to do,” Ewing said. “And I’m proving everyone wrong.”
• Andy Kostka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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