Syracuse-Georgetown is always a matchup circled on college basketball calendars around the country. A historic rivalry that has lived on from the carcass of a former great conference.
On a dreary Saturday in the nation’s capital, it wasn’t a day to reminisce of slug-em-out contests of the 1980s. Not a contest to brag about teams of old or argue about which program is better. It wasn’t even a day where Georgetown got to celebrate the first win of Patrick Ewing’s coaching career in this famous series.
Rather, it was a day to judge the future of one of college basketball’s storied programs. How Ewing and the Hoyas can salvage the remainder of the 2019-20 season and move forward with nine scholarship players.
“[Ewing is] a very good coach and I think he’s got seven guys that are as good as anybody,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of the remaining seven scholarship players that played this season. “If we played them, the way they were playing earlier in the year, we would’ve won the game.”
Georgetown won 89-79, but all the anticipation heading into this contest was what was happening off the court.
Four players had transferred out of the Hoyas program in the past two weeks. Three of those players facing serious allegations and issued restraining orders from a Georgetown student. The other being their starting point guard for an undisclosed reason.
Combined, the four of them had accounted for nearly 30% of the team’s playing time. At this point in the season, with conference play less than a month away, this would be detrimental for any ordinary team.
But from the outside, Boeheim believes that the exodus of players could benefit the Hoyas. The players that left were not conducive to winning basketball.
“I think by far this is by far the best team we’ve seen from Georgetown that I’ve seen in the past few years,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. Of the players that left, “two guys weren’t really contributing at all and another guy was throwing the ball up all the time. I know Patrick can’t say that, but I can. I watched [James Akinjo] play three games. He lost three games, two games by himself.”
Still, going from a team of 13 scholarship players to nine is a drastic change.
At least on the court, the Hoyas answered the challenge of limited depth. The Hoyas went eight-deep in their last big nonconference test of the year. One of the rotation players was the walk-on senior, George Muresan (son of former Washington Bullet Gheorghe Mureșan) who scrounged up six minutes of action.
They all played clean and held themselves to only 14 personal fouls, tied for their fewest this season.
“It has been a difficult week. A lot of things have happened, bad things swirling around. But I thought my guys stepped up,” Ewing said. “We still [have] enough on our team to have a very good year.”
To have a good season, one that started with NCAA Tournament aspirations, it will come down to Ewing. Against Syracuse, he was plugged in as ever. Not once did the former Hoya sit during live-ball action. He was barking out orders on the sideline, directing every offensive possession with intricate hand motions and waving players to certain places on the court. Despite leading for over 36 minutes and holding a 10-point lead consistently throughout the contest, not once did he waiver in his urgency.
He was stoic from the tip to the final buzzer, not moving out of a three-foot area he carved himself in front of the scorer’s table. But once the last horn sounded the tenseness in his shoulders waned. As Ewing walked to the locker room to celebrate his first-ever win as a coach in the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry, the emotion that has been built up since early December came out.
It was the third-straight game since the legal complaints against the now-former Georgetown players were made public. All three being arguably their most-complete performances of the season and their longest winning streak in nearly a year.
Through the turmoil, it has been Mac McClung steering the ship for the Hoyas. The sophomore dropped 26 points, 21 of which came in the first half with a dagger buzzer-beater. Since Akinjo’s departure and Terrell Allen stepping in as the point guard, McClung is on fire growing confidence in ever contest.
As a sophomore, McClung is now the face of the program. Coming in as a touted 6-2 recruit with an innate dunking ability, now the team will turn to him as a leader for the remainder of the season.
“That’s what happens when you face challenges, you either break apart or come together and I think we’ve came together,” McClung said.
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