Entering its fifth year with Head Coach Patrick Ewing (CAS ’85), the Georgetown men’s basketball team is in the process of redefining itself. The Hoyas, in the midst of their longest AP Top 25 drought since 1972, are entering the season with much uncertainty, including the lack of a steady identity. To succeed, Georgetown will have to continue to embrace the same status that propelled them to the 2021 NCAA Tournament as underappreciated overperformers.
The first time Georgetown demonstrated an underdog-based mentality was with former Head Coach John Thompson Jr.’s hiring in 1972. Thompson took a struggling Hoya basketball program and thrust it into the national spotlight, signing top recruit Ewing in 1981 and winning the NCAA tournament in 1984. He ensured that Georgetown basketball was synonymous with excellence both on and off the court, emphasizing the importance of academics and social activism to all of his players, and setting the tone for Georgetown’s identity to develop.
Thompson’s impact on his players cannot be understated; one of his most iconic stars, Allen Iverson, thanked him for saving his life in his Hall of Fame speech. Furthermore, Thompson endured open racism from fans and spoke out against discrimination. In one case, he walked off the court to protest Proposition 42, an NCAA regulation that would have disproportionately affected student-athletes from low-income backgrounds.
Under Thompson, Georgetown stood for bold, disciplined play and the defense of social justice. Fondly nicknamed “Hoya Paranoia,” the program was a national phenomenon and the team quickly became one of the most polarizing in sports. College basketball fans loved, hated or feared them, but no one could deny Georgetown was one of the most dominant teams in the country. Thompson led the Hoyas to a 596-239 record across his 27 seasons as head coach.
Years after Thompson left the program, his eldest son, John Thompson III, took over as head coach. Under the younger Thompson, the program returned to the forefront of college basketball, routinely bringing in top recruits and rarely dipping out of the top 25 rankings. Despite a few Big East Championships and deep tournament runs, Thompson III’s era was marred with disappointing finishes as Georgetown found themselves on the wrong end of a series of NCAA tournament upsets.
Off the court, though, the program continued the elder Thompson’s legacy, never failing to shy away from social issues. In 2014, Georgetown was the first college team to wear “I Can’t Breathe” warmup shirts in protest of police brutality in the wake of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the police.
Since hiring Ewing in 2017, the Hoyas have dealt with myriad challenges. Just as the program began to build momentum in the fall of 2019, Ewing’s first two seasons — meant to be rebuilding years — three players left the program to allegations of burglary, sexual harassment and assault. Star guard James Akinjo left the program the same season via the transfer portal, while star guard Mac McClung transferred after the season’s end. Despite significant departures and injuries to two starters, though, Ewing and the remaining Hoyas never backed down.
At the beginning of the 2020-2021 season, with much uncertainty surrounding the team and little returning talent, Georgetown was selected to finish last in the Big East in the annual conference coaches’ poll. The Hoyas took this ranking in stride and proved all of the doubters wrong, winning the Big East Tournament in a dominant 73-48 drubbing of the No. 17 Creighton Bluejays. Georgetown fully embraced the underdog mentality; in the locker room after the victory, Ewing belted out the Drake lyric “Started from the bottom, now we’re here,” as his team rejoiced.
Ewing’s current Hoyas are far away from the perennial powerhouse of Georgetown’s past. Instead, they have the opportunity to cement a new Hoya mentality. Georgetown’s roster is not stocked full of surefire first-round draft picks, but perhaps the Hoyas’ identity does not need to rely on superstars.
Georgetown was picked to finish 10th in the Big East in the preseason coaches’ poll. With remarkably low expectations set for the reigning Big East champions, Ewing and the Hoyas have a chance to silence any doubters by making some noise in conference play.
Building upon its conference championship run with a decent year in which the roster remains largely intact would do wonders for the Hoya program. The 2021-2022 season is a pivotal chance for the Hoyas to lean into their underdog status and rise to the occasion.