By Adam Zagoria
After his Georgetown team lost at Xavier on Saturday night to set a Big East Conference record for futility, a solemn Patrick Ewing walked through the handshake line and shook hands with Xavier coach Travis Steele, his staff and the Musketeers players.
Ewing retreated to the visitors’ locker room for his postgame news conference and once again answered questions about a loss — in this case the men’s basketball program’s 20th straight and 24th of the season — and whether his players were “still holding on to the rope” and “still in the fight.”
“Yeah, they’re still in the fight, you know, I believe so,” Ewing said. “We’re definitely disappointed in the outcome of our season. This is not nowhere where I expected us to be or the group as a whole expected us to be. But it is what it is.”
Ewing, the Basketball Hall of Fame center who was the face of the New York Knicks in the 1980s and ’90s, has experienced his share of dramatic wins and losses, but he has never endured such a prolonged stretch of frustration and failure.
Georgetown (6-24) became the first team in Big East history — which began during the 1979-80 season — to finish a season 0-19 in conference play. Two other teams finished 0-18, most recently DePaul during the 2008-09 season.
Approaching the end of his fifth season, there are questions about Ewing’s future at Georgetown. Ewing, 59, has a 68-83 record and just one winning season, in 2018-19. The Hoyas will be the No. 11 seed and face No. 6 Seton Hall when the Big East tournament begins today at Madison Square Garden, the site of many of Ewing’s greatest professional moments.
On Friday, Ewing took to Twitter to say he had no plans to quit after this season.
“Any announcement about my future will come from me or Georgetown University,” he wrote.
He reiterated that sentiment after Saturday’s loss.
Lee Reed, Georgetown’s athletic director, gave Ewing a vote of confidence last week, saying the school was “committed to” Ewing and had “confidence that he can strengthen our program going forward.”
“As a university with high standards and expectations for both academic and athletic excellence, we all share the disappointment of a difficult season,” Reed said.
He added, “I wish to thank all of our supporters and season-ticket holders for their ongoing commitment and express my appreciation to the members of our team for their hard work.”
It was only a year ago when a joyous and victorious Ewing strolled into the Georgetown locker room at the Garden singing Drake lyrics.
After being picked to finish last in the conference’s preseason coaches poll, the Hoyas had just beaten Creighton in the Big East tournament championship game, earning an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament — the program’s first berth since the 2014-15 season.
“Started from the bottom, now we’re here,” Ewing sang to his players, who soon doused him with water and joined him in celebration.
In addition to winning the Big East tournament last season, Ewing also pulled in a top 20 recruiting class, according to 247Sports rankings, highlighted by five-star wing Aminu Mohammed.
But the Hoyas lost their top four scorers from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, including big man Qudus Wahab, who transferred to Maryland, where he was averaging 7.9 points and 5.7 rebounds through Sunday.
As a team, Georgetown ranks last in the Big East in field goal percentage and points allowed per game and near the bottom in scoring.
“It’s just tough when you don’t have a lot of returning players that played last year,” said Donald Carey, a graduate student guard who is the team’s second-leading scorer this year after being its fifth-leading scorer last season.
He continued: “The chemistry wasn’t there exactly; the same chemistry and momentum wasn’t there because it was just me and Dante that played heavy minutes that are returning,” referring to sophomore point guard Dante Harris, who is averaging 12.3 points, 4.2 assists and 2.6 turnovers per game.
Carey scored 17 points when the Hoyas lost to Colorado in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, but unless Georgetown pulls off a miracle and wins the Big East tournament, he won’t get to taste March Madness again.
“It’s been tough; it’s been tough,” Carey said. “Losing is never easy, but the only way to get out of it is with forward-minded thinking, so you just look at the next day, the next game, what can we do to get better. What can we do to get a win?”
Rich Chvotkin, who is in his 48th year as the radio voice of Georgetown basketball and covered all 143 of Ewing’s college games, said he’s never seen anything like this season.
“The bottom line, it’s a very young team,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a work in progress that they just have trouble finishing games. All these things that they’ve been struggling with at game’s end have resulted in losses, and they just struggle to play 40 minutes. They play 32, they play 36 well, and they don’t finish at game’s end.”
Ewing has also struggled with retaining players during his tenure, losing 11 players to transfers as of June 2021. Some of those players are now starring elsewhere. James Akinjo, who began his career at Georgetown, is now on his third college stop and averaging 13.1 points and 5.8 assists for Baylor, which won a share of the Big 12 regular season title with Kansas.
As a dominant college big man in the early 1980s, Ewing ruled the Big East along with St. John’s star Chris Mullin. Ewing helped lead the Hoyas to three national championship games in his four seasons, guiding the program to the 1984 title under Hall of Fame coach John Thompson.
Like Ewing, Mullin returned to his alma mater to coach. He faltered in his four-year tenure, going 59-73 and 20-52 in the Big East with one NCAA Tournament appearance before stepping down in 2019.
Ewing is now in a similar position.
With the Big East tournament set to begin Wednesday, there is always the hope that Georgetown could somehow make another miraculous run, one that ends with Ewing singing Drake in the locker room once again.
“It’s a new season; anything is possible,” Ewing said.
Added Carey: “The Big East tournament is only four games, so if we win four games, we’re back in the NCAA Tournament.”