On Dec. 3, Patrick Ewing kicked two of his best players — starting point guard James Akinjo and key forward Josh LeBlanc — off the team.
That was supposed to ruin this season of high expectations on the Hilltop. Georgetown was now down to seven scholarship players. The last two games, that number has been sliced to five, as injuries have kept leading scorer Mac McClung (foot) and star big man Omer Yurtseven (ankle) on the sideline.
And, yet, the Hoyas remain NCAA Tournament-relevant, winning three of the past four games without McClung, and the past two without Yurtseven. They won at No. 19 Butler on Saturday, their fifth Quadrant 1 victory, to go along with quality wins over Creighton at home, at St. John’s and at Oklahoma State. Georgetown’s worst loss was at home to UNC Greensboro, which really isn’t a bad loss at all, since the Southern Conference foe has a NET ranking of 54. Ewing’s team is 15-10 overall and 5-7 in the Big East, just a game out of sixth place in the powerful league.
The fewer players Ewing has, the better his team seems to play. Nobody expected this team to even be in play for the tournament after losing those four players. Losing McClung and Yurtseven should’ve been a death blow. Instead, it has galvanized this group even further, a credit to Ewing and his staff.
I’ve always felt a true measure of a college basketball coach is how his team responds in difficult times. And, Dec. 3 certainly qualifies. Shortly after Ewing announced LeBlanc and Akinjo were no longer part of the program, reports leaked of accusations of burglary and harassment against LeBlanc, Alexander and Gardner, complaints filed by two students. Akinjo wasn’t connected to the allegations. Georgetown responded by winning six straight games. When McClung got hurt, it rallied from 17 down to knock off St. John’s.
What happened with those players is at least partly Ewing’s responsibility. He recruited the players. It’s his program, some of his detractors have rightly pointed out.
It all depends on your point of view. This hasn’t been a breakthrough season for Georgetown as some predicted — the defections ruined that — but it hasn’t been a failure, either.
Ewing and his players deserve credit for turning what could’ve been a disaster into a feel-good year. Win a few more games, get into the tournament for the first time in five years and we can characterize it as an even better season than that.
Don’t Coll’ him Ryan
Everyone wants to peg Collin Gillespie as the next Ryan Arcidiacono. It makes sense, since they look so similar and have similar-type games. But that wouldn’t be doing Gillespie justice. He’s having a better year, statistics-wise at least, than Arcidiacono ever had, and he’s only a junior.
Gillespie, one of the nation’s most improved players — the overriding reason why young Villanova trails Seton Hall by just one game in the loss column for the Big East lead — is averaging 15.6 points, 4.6 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals and is shooting 34.9 percent from 3-point range.
Arcidiacono’s best season was his senior year, when he averaged 12.5 points, 4.2 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 1.4 steals and shot 39.4 percent from deep. His team, of course, won a national championship, with him setting up Kris Jenkins for the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Villanova probably isn’t going to win a national title this year. But the Wildcats remain in contention for a league crown thanks to the development of Gillespie into a leader, playmaker and scorer. He’s more than the second coming of Arcidiacono. He’s even better.
’Cock of the walk
So far, St. Peter’s has hit a home run with Shaheen Holloway, the former Seton Hall associate head coach and star player. In just his second season, Holloway has the Peacocks all alone atop the MAAC with a roster built mostly on underclassmen he has recruited. The last time St. Peter’s, which has won seven of its past eight games, won the conference was 1986-87. It last went dancing in 2011. Both seem very possible this year.
Game of the Week:
No. 3 Kansas at No. 1 Baylor, Saturday 12 p.m.
Baylor overwhelmed Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 11. Beat the Jayhawks again, and the Bears will have all but wrapped the No. 1-overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Neither team has lost since that showdown, creating what should be an electric atmosphere in Waco when the two Final Four contenders who have won a combined 32 straight games meet.
1: Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga, San Diego State
2: Maryland, Duke, Dayton, Florida State
3: Penn State, West Virginia, Auburn, Louisville
4: Oregon, Seton Hall, Creighton, Villanova
Experience, balance and shot-making can go a long way in March — three qualities Creighton possesses. Winners of seven of their last eight games, the Bluejays have played their way into a top-four seed. They now have five Quadrant 1 road victories — highlighted by wins at Seton Hall and Villanova — and are within striking distance of their first Big East crown, trailing the Pirates by a game with five contests left, three of which are at home. That includes the regular-season finale against Seton Hall which could determine the league champion.
There isn’t a better conference title race than the Ivy League. Five teams are within a game of first place with six games remaining. Yale and Princeton are tied atop the league at 6-2, followed by Brown, Harvard and Penn at 5-3. Before falling to Princeton, Brown had won five in a row, and it still gets to host Princeton and Penn while visiting Harvard. The Bears, who last went dancing way back in 1986 and were picked to finish fifth, are in strong position to qualify for the four-team playoff. So is Yale, last year’s champion which owns victories over Clemson and Vermont and gets Princeton and Penn in its gym. It should make the two-day playoff at Harvard an exciting 48 hours.
Any other year, this would’ve made no sense. A team like Louisville losing consecutive games to mediocre-at-best foes Georgia Tech and Clemson. This year, it’s almost expected — the season has been that unpredictable. The Cardinals went from winning 10 in a row, all alone atop the ACC, to now looking up at Duke, and facing a crisis of confidence. A lot went wrong for Louisville this past week, but at the top of the list was the play of star junior Jordan Nwora, who managed just seven total points on 1 of 11 shooting while committing eight turnovers.
Seton Hall wouldn’t be leading the Big East without Powell. It wouldn’t be a top-10 team without him. He’s the engine. He makes the Pirates run. But the trend lines are hard to ignore. His starts have been shaky, and his shooting numbers have tailed off. He’s shooting just 25.6 percent from deep in Big East play, though Powell is averaging 22.0 points per game. Just as concerning is how he has performed at home of late, since Seton Hall still has three games left at Prudential Center, needing to win at least two of those not to blow the Big East regular-season crown. In his last three games in Newark, Powell has made just 13 of 51 shots from the field and is averaging only 15 points per game. That needs to change this week, as the Pirates host Butler and St. John’s in need of a bounce-back following consecutive losses for the first time since mid-December.