Georgetown men’s basketball has missed the NCAA Tournament four straight years;  that doesn’t happen too often.  There was a stretch earlier this century when the program was transitioning from Craig Esherick to John Thompson III.  And then there was the 1970’s when John Thompson Jr. was in the process of transforming the private Jesuit school into a national name and force to be reckoned with.  The pathway to what was titled “Hoya Paranoia” back then remains the route for the current team return to college hoops’ promised land:  defense.

Last year the Hoyas finished 19-14 and fell in the first round of the NIT to Harvard, and their inability to stop opponents was the major reason for their exclusion on Selection Sunday.  Georgetown allowed 78.1 points per game, the most in the Big East, despite ranking second in defending the three, third in blocked shots, and fourth in defensive field goal percentage and steals.  The whole wound up being much less than the sum it its parts for head coach Patrick Ewing.  “We have to be a much better defensive team,”. We have some new guys that will help with individual defense, but our team defense needs to be much better than it was. We’ve been working on it a lot but you won’t know how good you are until you start playing games.”

Getting better on D is much easier said than done. “A big thing with defense is will and trust,” senior guard Jagan Mosely said. “If you don’t trust your teammates to help you, you’re not going to help your teammates. I feel like it’s just more of a domino effect.”  This year’s team will be entrusted to the Marlboro, N.J. product who’s started 28 of his 93 games over the last three seasons.  “I expect for him to step up, lead, talk when talk is needed, lead by example,” Ewing said.

But make no mistake, the engine that will drive this team is the sophomore backcourt tandem of James Akinjo and Mac McClung.  The two guards started 32 and 29 games, respectively, last winter and each averaged over 13 points per game.  “They should be two of the best players in the Big East. That’s how I’m driving them,” Ewing said. “Not only to be great teammates, but also do their things individually.”  While McClung provides plenty of sizzle with highlight-reel threes, Akinjo is the steak.  The Oakland, CA product led the Hoyas in assists and is the team’s top returning three-point shooter (we’re going to count Josh LeBlanc’s 5-for-7 dabbling as a small sample size).  “He is definitely one of the hardest working players on the team. He’s always in the gym-I have to kick him out,” Ewing said. “And I expect for all the work he put in this summer to pay off.”

Akinjo and McClung know that they were more of a part of the defensive problem than the defensive solution last winter.  “Our unit was a lot of young guys last year,” McClung said. “When you come out of high school your defensive schemes are a little different than in college.  I feel like one year under our belt we’re gonna be a lot better. ”  Akinjo led the team in steals but knows defensive success is more than just putting numbers together on the stat sheet.  “This year we have to pick it up with our defensive energy and our attention to detail,” Akinjo said. “That’s something that coach  has been harping on every day.”

The Hoyas do have to fill the void left by four-year starter Jessie Govan;  the big man led Georgetown in scoring each of the last two seasons.  But it isn’t as though this team won’t have size, as coach Patrick Ewing brings in three six-foot-11 centers while seven-foot Turkish center Omer Yurtseven sat out last winter after transferring from NC State.  “He still has a lot to learn- I think sitting out last year kind of hurt him,” Ewing said. “But I don’t see anyone in the country that can do the things that he can do at that position.”  Even rusty, Yurtseven was named Honorable Mention Preseason All-Big East.  With six-foot-six swingman Myron Gardner headlining the incoming class, the coach knows he has plenty of combinations at his disposal.  “There will be a lot times you’ll see a three-guard lineup, one-guard lineup, big lineup, small lineup,” Ewing said. “I think that with the depth that we have we should be able to do a lot of things.”

For the first time in his tenure at Georgetown, Patrick Ewing’s team is expected to make noise: the Hoyas received votes in both national polls and while they were picked to finish sixth in the Big East, they were just a few votes away from third.  The roster on paper is much more impressive than the one he inherited in 2017.  But that’s only one step.  “Having more talent doesn’t always equate to wins,” Ewing said. “One of the things I’ve been talking to them about is yes, we have a lot more talent. Yes, we are much deeper this year than we were last year. But we still have to play as a team.”

One major difference this year is the non-conference schedule; while it’s not the most difficult, it’s a step above last season’s slate that was ranked 248th (out of 351 Division I schools) that may have featured a pair of NCAA Tournament teams but also included five schools ranked 247th or lower by RealTimeRPI.com (Maryland-Eastern Shore took the dubious cake with a ranking of 348).  Penn State, Texas, Oklahoma State and Syracuse might not be in the Associated Presss Preseason Top 25, but they’re name brands.  That will present a double-edged opportunity a program that feasted on sub-par foes the last two winters. “It’s definitely going to sharpen us,” Ewing said. “Because if we don’t start out fast and well we’ll dig ourselves in a hole.”  The Big East will provide the usual challenges, with Villanova, Seton Hall and Xavier ranked to start the season with Providence and Creighton also receiving votes, along with Georgetown.  Another winter ahead of tough tests; another winter where defense will determine the Hoyas’ fate.