By DERON SNYDER
Georgetown fans experienced a blast from the past Saturday at Capital One Arena.
Syracuse was in town. Orange-clad fans were in the stands. Venerable Jim Boeheim stalked the visitors’ sideline and towering Patrick Ewing sat on the hosts’ bench.
Aside from Ewing wearing a suit instead of a uniform, you could’ve closed your eyes and been transported to 1985, when the Big East Conference supplied three-quarters of the Final Four.
But this was different, with the Big East no longer home to Syracuse, a charter member. A bigger dissimilarity was the level of competition, as Georgetown faced a name-brand opponent for the first time this season.
The Hoyas were in control for most of the game before a late collapse led to an overtime defeat, 86-79. It marked their first blemish after an 8-0 start, against the nation’s easiest non-conference schedule according to KenPom.com.
Ewing gets the Hoyas back on their cupcake diet with games this week against North Texas and Alabama A&M, before beginning conference play against Butler. His decision to eschew serious threats aside from Syracuse has been a major talking point in his inaugural season as coach.
Folks have called the schedule a joke. A disgrace. Dreadful. An outrage. Ewing has been unfazed, saying his philosophy won’t necessarily change when he’s more experienced with an older team.
I hope this doesn’t become a trend, though. Better early-season foes make for more compelling and interesting basketball games. I hope Ewing simply moved with extra caution in taking over his legendary-but-dormant alma mater.
Perhaps he slightly underestimated himself and his team. There were no ill effects after feasting on appetizers prior to the Orange. Junior center Jessie Govan (21 points and eight rebounds) looked like one of the nation’s better big men. Sophomore guard Jagan Mosely scored 20 points off the bench. “They did everything right,” Boeheim said of Ewing’s squad.
But here’s the thing: No will care about their November/December schedule once the Hoyas are threats to win Big East titles. The list of early pushovers won’t matter when Georgetown is poised for deep runs in the NCAA Tournament.
That hasn’t been the case the last two years, resulting in a 29-36 record (12-24 in conference play) and John Thompson III being fired.
Ewing didn’t walk into a stable situation like, say, LaVall Jordan, whose Butler program has reached the Big Dance in nine of the last 11 seasons and been bumped in the first round just once. Or Mike Rhoades, who takes over a VCU program with nine consecutive NCAA tournaments and just two first-round exits since 2009.
Ewing inherited a team almost as green as its first-year coach. The Hoyas were predicted to finish near the bottom of the conference, if not dead-last. There would be little upside in pursuing a more ambitious schedule at this juncture, which is why Ewing pulled his team from last month’s PK80 tournament, where their bracket featured North Carolina, Michigan State, Oregon and UConn.
Yes, a Georgetown-North Carolina matchup would’ve been buzzworthy and caused networks to dig up replays of the historic 1982 national title game, remembered for Michael Jordan’s game-winning jumper and Fred Brown’s mistaken pass to James Worthy. It was the first of Ewing’s three appearances in the championship game, cementing his place in college basketball history along with the upstart Hoyas.
Ideally, Georgetown can return to the level where a challenging early-season tournament is embraced, not feared. Win or lose, those tests can set the foundation for success in March. The high-profile events don’t hurt recruiting efforts, either.
Maybe Commissioner Val Ackerman can help by adding a “Big East Classic” to the national November slate. It could feature a rotation of current/founding members like Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s and Seton Hall against former members like Syracuse, UConn, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
That tournament wouldn’t rival the annual Champions Classic (Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State) for cachet, but it would carry considerable historical weight and create significant interest. It would help everyone remember the Hilltop’s former glory as Ewing tries to shepherd a new era.
But even if he continues the strategy of easy-lift non-conference games – a philosophy embraced by plenty of others, including Georgetown patriarch John Thompson Jr. – that won’t determine Ewing’s legacy.
He might always prefer the Hoyas to eat cupcakes early.
The ability to devour steaks later is the only relevant goal.