The 2019-20 Hoyas were 15-17 during a tumultuous season in which four players left the program. There are no concerns regarding Ewing’s job security as he enters his fourth season, but the honeymoon is over. The Hall of Famer recently discussed the past, present and future of the program with The Washington Post.
Q: What’s the state of the program and the next step ahead?
A: Our future is still bright, in my opinion. We still have a long way to go. We were doing extremely well the first year, did well the second year. Third year, it was a hiccup in terms of the four guys that left kind of set us back from where I thought that we would have been. But it’s all about improving and growing from that. Learning and continue to grow. Wishing those guys all the best. The two guys that are coming back next year, trying to add pieces with that core to make sure that we have a pretty good year next year.
Q: What did you take from that adversity last season both as a coach and a program?
A: What I took out of it as a coach [is] that it’s never over till it’s over. You’re always going to have adversity in life and also in your career. That was an adversity that I thought that my guys rallied around each other, just kept on fighting. Even with the injuries, they rallied around each other, kept on persevering. We were disappointed in the way things happened. We were just disappointed in the way the season ended. But I was always proud of the way that my guys fought and the way that they came back and continued to fight.
Q: What were the biggest challenges over this three-year stretch, and what did you learn?
A: I’m not going to say there’s been anything that’s been a huge challenge. Coaching is something that I’ve been doing for a lot of years. I’ve been an apprentice, you might say, for 15 years in the NBA, learning this craft. And be it that I was not a head coach, I still was observing a lot of the things — coaching in the summer leagues, being the head coach in the summer league. So, I’ve been working at this craft for a lot of years. I still think I have a lot of growth to be made. And one of the things I always think about is when I was interviewing for the job, what Coach [John] Thompson always said, the coaching part of it is only 30 percent of it. The 70 percent of it is all the other things. Dealing with the situation like we dealt with this year. Recruiting. Dealing with professors and admissions. All the things that I’m still learning and still growing at.
Q: How has the practice of recruiting developed for you?
A: We have some good kids coming in. Some good recruits coming in. We have four freshmen and a couple of fifth-year guys. Recruiting is the lifeblood of every program. You have to embrace it. That’s just the way I look at it. That’s one of the things people ask me when I first took the job: How are you going to recruit? To me, it’s the lifeblood of every program, so if you don’t want to embrace it, if you don’t try to do it to the best of your ability, you’re not going to be successful. And that’s how I look at it.
Q: Have you developed a style now that you have been through a few recruiting classes? Does it feel more natural?
A: It’s always been natural. I never looked at it as being something that I wasn’t good at. It’s just meeting people, talking to people, evaluating talent, which I’ve already done. But I try to find the best fits for what you’re trying to do. I don’t see myself as not being a good recruiter, and only time will tell.
Q: With the guys you already have, what have you been able to do since you haven’t been able to get together as a group during the novel coronavirus pandemic?
A: Nothing yet. Right now, they’re still finishing up the exams. So, it’s not like they can come to the gym and get shots up. So right now, we’ve sent out some [resistance] bands for them to do workouts when we’re ready for them to start doing it. But right now, it’s all about them recovering from the injuries that they’ve had. Finishing up the exams, finishing up class. And then just in a couple of weeks when everything is all settled, start back working out in a virtual workout until they’re allowed to either come back on campus or even get to a gym that’s near them.
Q: What are the guys rehabbing able to do?
A: Nothing right now. The ones who have to go to [physical therapy], they go to PT or PT virtually. Just really resting. Resting and recuperating and just finishing up class. … No one really needs rehab. They have gotten to the point that they do that virtually. Ones that had things needed to be done, it was done before all this stuff started. So, it’s all about just letting everything heal.
Q: What is Mac McClung’s status?
A: He’s still trying to get feedback from the NBA to decide if he’s going to try to go the NBA route. That’s about it. That’s all I know right now.
Q: Did some wires get crossed between you two somewhere along the way?
A: Yeah, I guess. Maybe I spoke too soon.
Q: What kind of growth do you need to see from Jamorko Pickett and Jahvon Blair?
A: We expect great things out of them. I’ve always expected great things out of them. They played well as freshmen. Sophomore year, they didn’t play as well. Last year with the way everything went, they were all playing 40 minutes a game. They’re not going to play 40 minutes a game next year. But we need for them to be impact players for us if we’re going to be successful or if we’re going to be good.
Q: What kind of role do you envision for Arkansas transfer Jalen Harris?
A: He’s a true point guard. He’s a great defender. He’s a facilitator. He’s a downhill guy. He can pick you up full court, a downhill-type player. He’s going to be able to take it to the hole and make plays.
Q: You were known for your defensive prowess. What are your visions for your group defensively, and how do you make some strides in that area?
A: Become a much better defensive team than we have been. We did a little better last year, but we need to continue on that road. Yes, defense has always been one of the things, everywhere that I’ve been, that we’ve been good at it. Be it as a player or even as a coach. But here it hasn’t been as well as I would like it to be. But we still work on the defense. Something that we work on every day. And we hope to become much better at it as we continue to go on.
Q: Is there a specific facet of the defense that you’d like to see improved?
A: Everything. Everything.
Q: Can four-star recruit Jamari Sibley contribute right away?
A: We’re hoping that everybody will be able to contribute right away. We’re going to need for everyone to play well for us. All the recruits, we’re going to expect great, great things out of them. … We need all of them to play well for us and add to the core that we’re bringing back.
Q: What was it about Sibley that you liked so much?
A: His talent. He’s talented; he’s a go getter. He can do a lot of things. Very versatile. All of the guys that we’re bringing in, they’re very versatile. They can play a lot of different positions.
Q: You have two scholarships open. Any thoughts on how you’re going to fill them?
A: We’re still working on that. We’re still looking at film. We’re still thinking. We’re still meeting and trying to see who’s going to be the best fit for us.
Q: Is there a position you’re trying to fill?
A: You’ll know when we figure it out. Top secret.
Q: Does Year 4 carry more weight now that you’ve laid down your foundation and been here for a while?
A: We’ve laid the foundation and last year there was a huge hiccup in the plan. So we’ve got to recover from that. The guys that we’re bringing in are definitely going to help us. … Six or seven new guys are going to be on the team, and we are not going to really have a chance to be around each other. The summer is going to be virtual. So, all the learning and all the meshing process that we were going to be doing is going to be stunted a little bit. So, we’re going to try to get things, when we’re able to get back on campus, we’re going to have to try to hit the ground running.
Q: How difficult is that, and how do you deal with it?
A: It’s going to be difficult. But we just have to continue to just wait and see. I think a lot of people are going to be faced with the same thing that we’re going to be faced with. But the only difference is they have more guys coming back from last year than we do. The people that we lost were people that were going to be in our core for many years.
Q: Can you describe what you want the culture of this program to be?
A: People talk about [being] professional. Yeah, we want to be professional. We want guys to be locked in academically. No nonsense. Making sure that they’re doing all the things that they need to do, both academically and athletically. Smart, resilient and definitely staying out of trouble.
Q: ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” has been a basketball fix for many during these times. What’s it like to watch as someone who had some memorable wars with Jordan on the court?
A: Well, that’s why I haven’t been watching it that much. I watched some of it, but I don’t need to watch it to know how great he was. I lived it. I had to compete against him night in and night out, year in and year out. And unfortunately, we weren’t able to beat him. So, I lived through everything that they’re talking about. So, I don’t need to watch it again.