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In advance of the UConn men’s basketball team’s move to the Big East, The Courant will acquaint fans with the Huskies’ 10 new league opponents — some of them established rivals from the league’s previous incarnations, others less familiar foes.
First, the best possible news: Patrick Ewing is feeling better. And he’d like a word with you.
“Things are going fine, I’m doing well,” Ewing told The Courant in a wide-ranging interview, two months after being hospitalized with COVID-19. “Just like everyone who has had it, I would say everyone needs to be safe, and then you still might get it like I did. Wear your mask, wash your hands, socially distance. It’s real.”
Ewing, 57, Hall of Famer, member of the original U.S. Olympic Dream Team, and for the past three seasons the head coach at his alma mater, Georgetown, announced on May 22 he had tested positive and was released after a few days in the hospital. As he has recovered, he has resumed the task of putting pieces back together after a tumultuous season.
Whenever the new season comes, Georgetown and UConn will be rivals again in the “new” Big East, which officially welcomed the Huskies as a member on July 1.
“It definitely strengthens the league,” Ewing sai. “This is a school that has been there from the beginning, went away for a while, now they’re back. I think it’s great. One of the founding members, it’s going to be just like old times.”
Any list of significant figures in Big East history should have Ewing near the top. Already a household name as a high school player in Boston, Ewing, 7-foot, first arrived at Georgetown in 1981, the league’s third season, and centered the Hoyas through three runs to the NCAA Final, winning the championship in 1984. Then he joined the Knicks as the No. 1 pick in the draft and went on to make 11 NBA All-Star teams.
“It’s definitely a different style [today],” Ewing said. “In my era, centers were more on the box, posting up. Even though they still do that a lot more in college basketball than in the NBA, the style has definitely changed; now the big men want to be on the perimeter, everybody wants to be on the perimeter shooting threes. But I do think if someone has a dominant center, they’re going to give him the ball in the box.”
After several seasons as an NBA assistant coach, Ewing returned to Georgetown, replacing John Thompson III as head coach in 2017, and is 49-46 in three years. Last season turned chaotic in early December when four players left the team, three in the midst of off-the-court, legal problems. The fourth, guard James Akinjo, a one-time UConn commit, left for unrelated reasons. Down to nine scholarship players, Ewing held things together and the Hoyas won six in a row, beating Syracuse and Oklahoma State.
“It’s never over until it’s over,” Ewing said. “Like my mother always tells me, ‘whatever doesn’t kill you is going to make you stronger.' We had a lot of adversity last year, but I thought my guys fought hard and they overcame it. They didn’t just let those incidents define us or stop us from building a good team. Unfortunately, injuries took us out of it at the end, but I thought all the adversity that went on did not hurt us as badly as it could have.”
Georgetown upset Creighton and Butler early in the conference season but, missing top scorer Mac McClung with a foot injury, lost its last seven and finished 15-17, 5-13 in the Big East. McClung (15.7 points per game) transferred to Texas Tech and Omer Yurtseven (15.5 points, 9.8 rebounds) turned pro. Jahvon Blair, Jamorko Pickett, Qudus Wahab, Timothy Ighoefe, Malcom Wilson are among those coming back. There are seven new players, including transfers Chaudier Bile and Jalen Harris and freshman Dante Harris, Jamari Sibley, Kobe Clark, T.J. Burger and Collin Holloway.
The look Ewing wants for his teams is “well-coached, high intensity on both ends.”
“I don’t have an ideal type of player,” he said. “You have to look at everyone that you recruit, see what kind of characteristics they have. You’d love to have somebody who has a high motor, who can shoot, who can dribble, who can rebound, who can pass. But everybody’s different. You definitely want high character, high basketball IQ guys.”
There is no date yet for Georgetown players to return to campus to begin practicing together. So far the team-building has all been virtual.
“Naturally, you expect the guys coming back to carry the team,” Ewing said, “but then we have seven new faces, and not being able to be around them, work them out or have these informal practices that we usually have at this time, it’s hurting us.”
Ewing, too, is having ongoing dialogue with his players about social justice issues, urging them to register and vote, fill out the census, participate in the efforts for the changes they want. “I’m big into it,” he said. “The young people are our future, they’re the ones that can definitely make the changes, and those are the things I’m talking to my team about.”
Georgetown and UConn have played 66 times. John Thompson’s Hoyas dominated UConn during the early days of the Big East, winning 13 in a row between 1982-88, the Huskies ending that with a critical late-season victory en route to the program-lifting NIT title in 1988. Then UConn won 18 of 20 meetings between 1994 and 2006. The list of epic games between the schools is long, but topped for most by the Ray Allen-Allen Iverson duel in the Big East tournament final in 1996, a 75-74 win for the Huskies.
After the breakup of the original Big East, UConn and Georgetown split a home-and-home series (2016-17). The Hoyas own a 36-30 lead as the series is set to resume in the new conference, formed around the seven basketball-centric Catholic schools, including Georgetown.
Though Ewing’s playing days, like the Knicks’ glory days, are long gone, he’s been on minds recently as the ESPN Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” covered the ‘92 Dream Team, and MSG Network has been featuring Ewing-related programming this month. His No. 33 hangs from the rafters at The Garden, and he weighed in on the Knicks’ coaching search, endorsing New Britain’s Tom Thibodeau, who interviewed last week.
“I love Tom,” Ewing said. “He coached me [as an assistant] when I was with the Knicks, I worked with him in Houston. He’s a great coach, he’s a great guy and he’s a hard worker. He’s very knowledgeable. I think he’d be a great fit for the Knicks job.”
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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