Last year’s Georgetown men’s basketball team won 19 games, its highest total since the 2014-15 season, which was also the last time the Hoyas made the NCAA tournament. They came up short of the tournament last year and lost their most productive player to graduation, but this year’s team is not shy about aiming higher.
“We should make it to the NCAA tournament and we should win some games,” junior Jamorko Pickett says. “That’s my realistic expectation.”
Head coach Patrick Ewing enters his third season at the helm of his alma mater. He was part of Georgetown teams in the 1980s that brought the program into national prominence. But when he took over in 2017, Georgetown watched as the likes of Villanova, Seton Hall, and Xavier headline the reborn Big East Conference while the Hoyas mired in mediocrity.
Ewing appears to have the program moving in the right direction. He has a young, talented nucleus and is relying on the development of that group in order to make another leap forward this season.
Sophomore guards Mac McClung and James Akinjo broke out as freshmen in starting roles last year, with each scoring over 13 points per game and Akinjo adding 5.2 assists per contest. Both need to work on cutting down turnovers and improving as defenders—typical freshmen problems that they’ll need to quickly overcome—while also growing into leadership roles.
“I expect a lot of things from them, not only on the court but off the court,” Ewing says. “To me they should be two of the best players in the Big East.”
After counseling a shooting coach, McClung made an offseason change to his form, hoping to be a more accurate shooter “on all three levels,” he says. A high school dunk-reel sensation who broke Allen Iverson’s Virginia state scoring record, McClung is working on developing into a more complete player.
“He had a lot of bad habits from high school [defensively],” Ewing says. “Where they didn’t need him to play defense, because they needed him to be on the floor, needed him to score … We need him to play defense.”
Akinjo spent his time in the offseason building physical strength and watching film.
“I want to be a more cerebral point guard, and I also want to focus on getting stronger … so that I can have better percentages finishing around the rim,” he says.
Ewing is confident the Richmond, California native will improve in both of those areas.
“He made mistakes just like all freshmen. What I expect from him this year is not to make the same mistakes,” he explains, adding that Akinjo is “definitely one of the hardest working players that we have on this team. He’s always in the gym, I have to kick him out. I expect for all the work that he put in this summer to pay off.”
Another key to this season is going to be senior Omer Yurtseven, a newly eligible transfer at Georgetown by way of North Carolina State University, where he averaged 13.5 points and 6.7 rebounds as a sophomore in the 2017-18 season. After sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, Yurtseven is stepping into the starting center job vacated by Jessie Govan’s graduation. As a senior, Govan led the team in scoring and rebounds, and helped Georgetown notch big wins over Marquette, Villanova, and Seton Hall.
The Hoyas are confident Yurtseven is ready to fill those shoes. Though he’s a capable shooter like Govan, the Turkish transfer will take a more traditional approach to playing in the post.
“Omer is real tough bruiser,” Akinjo says. “He’s gonna bring that toughness, that physicality inside.”
“It’s nearly impossible to keep him off the rim. He chases every rebound. He sets hard screens… he finishes every play,” Pickett adds, “I feel like Omer is going to come into that role that Jessie had last year and I think he’s going to do a pretty good job.”
Before college, Yurtseven played club ball in Turkey, where he had a chance to harden his game against older, stronger competition. The college game presents a different challenge, but he became acclimated to it over two years at NC State.
“Players are way more tough [in college] and the refs kind of allow it a little bit more, like all the wrestling down on the block,” Yurtseven says. “I would say it’s a little bit more intense here because it’s so young and the ceiling is still unknown to many players.”
In addition to being counted on to produce points and rebounds, Yurtseven is going to have to be a leader in a starting lineup that is relatively light on experience. He’s one of only a handful of upperclassmen on the roster and the only member of the team who has previously played in the NCAA tournament.
The comparisons to Govan will be difficult to avoid, but the 7-footer plans on making a mark in his own way.
“No matter how much you want to say, oh, you guys are both post players, you guys can both stretch the floor,” he says. “It’s a different player and we have different ways of approaching the game.”
The way his game translates for Georgetown, after a year off from live play and meshing with new teammates, could be the difference between the Hoyas making or missing the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t see anyone in the country that can do the things that he can do at that position,” Ewing says, “shooting the ball from the perimeter, also post-up, defend, rebound. So I expect a lot from him.”
Qudus Wahab will also be a contributor in the low-post for the Hoyas. The 6-foot-10 freshman is a former four-star recruit out of Flint High School in Oakton, Virginia who brings size and strength to the team immediately. Ewing called him the “most ready to play” out of their three freshmen big men.
“His physicality was impressive,” Yurtseven says of Wahab.
Unlike previous seasons, Ewing has the talent across this roster to make waves in Big East play and the postseason. But it’ll take a lot of work to make sure he’s using optimal lineups and fitting the different pieces together properly.
“There’ll be a lot of times where you see a three-guard lineup, a one-guard lineup, big lineup, small lineup,” the third-year head coach says. “I think with the depth that we have we should be able to do a lot of things … The only way you’re going to know how good you are or how good it’s going to be is when you start against other people.”
“Having more talent doesn’t always equate to wins,” Ewing adds.