During last night’s Kentucky-LSU game, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale called Kentucky’s defense “the best I’ve seen in my 36 years at ESPN.” The ‘Cats defense is awfully good, worthy of being in such a conversation. But the best defense in the modern era of college hoops belonged to Georgetown basketball during the Patrick Ewing era from 1982-85.
Today’s Kentucky team has two distinct strengths—they come at you in waves, with nine regulars, and they have shot blockers at the rim, Karl Anthony-Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein. Georgetown could match the depth, the ability to defend everywhere on the floor and for all 94 feet, and Ewing was one of the great rim protectors of all time.
For readers who didn’t experience the Ewing era, the names I’m about to read will go past like a blur, but for those of us who watched them (I was in grade school at the time), they’ll conjure up memories. Gene Smith was a terrific on-ball defender in the backcourt. Michael Graham, the bald-headed enforcer, maintained order on opposing forwards.
From David Wingate, to Reggie Williams to Bill Martin to Fred Brown, head coach John Thompson could just keep up the pressure. And if Ewing needed a rest? Thompson always had a reliable big man on the bench, from Ed Spriggs in 1982, to Ralph Dalton after that. Neither was a shotblocker, but they could bang on the boards and clean up the misses the aggressive perimeter defenders keep forcing.
That kind of quickness and depth outside is why I believe the Ewing-era Georgetown teams would still be great in the era of the three-point shot. They had the speed to extend their defense and the big man was ready to wipe away any mistakes.
The other significant rule change in the ensuing three decades plus is the introduction of a shot clock, first at 45 seconds and then reduced to the current 35. This is a change that would benefit the old Georgetown teams. While the increased number of possessions leads to higher point volume, defense is also easier on a per-possession basis—you know up front you only have to guard the opposing team for a limited amount of time.
What if these Georgetown teams were playing teams with significantly less offensive experience, due to all the early entries to the NBA? That’s not a problem these Hoyas would likely have been afflicted by.
Ewing was the only one who was a serious prospect to leave early and even in the 1980s, the pressure on him year-to-year was already enormous and he stayed in school for four years. Thompson had the loyalty of his players, as he did throughout the African-American community.
So we can envision a Georgetown team playing against opposing offenses without the same kind of veteran cohesion as the opponents they really did face had. The Hoyas would only have to defend for 35 seconds and they would be able to extend to the three-point line. I submit that while their defense wouldn’t look as good statistically—simply because no team is going to look as good in the era of the three-pointer and shot clock—they would actually be better in practice.
Think about the opponents Georgetown really did have to face. This was the high point of Big East basketball, as documented in ESPN’s terrific 30-for-30 documentary Requiem For The Big East that aired last year.
St. John’s had Chris Mullin, a future Hall of Famer and NBA All-Star. Syracuse had Pearl Washington, one of the most electrifying point guards in the country and a future first-round pick, even though he didn’t make it in the pros. Boston College produced consistently good teams under Tom Davis and then Gary Williams. And Villanova? Well, Georgetown fans need no reminder of what Rollie Massimino’s veteran teams were capable of back then.
Here’s a brief primer on what Georgetown’s defenses did…
*In their three Final Four years (1982, 1984, 1985), they played 16 games and held the opponent under 50 points ten times. Even allowing the lack of a shot clock or three-point line, 50 was still considered a basic benchmark that any offense wanted to hit, lest they be embarrassed. Against Georgetown, they were embarrassed a lot.
*In the six games they played in the regionals (Sweet 16 & Elite 8) in those years, the Hoyas, an opponent never shot higher than 41 percent from the floor and was held below 40 percent three times.
*In a game Kentucky fans who saw it would like to forget, the two teams faced off in a Final Four game in 1984. Georgetown held UK to 3-of-23 shooting and 11 points in the second half. In the 1982 Final Four, they had held Louisville to sub-40 percent shooting in another victory.
*The crown jewel came in 1985, when the Hoyas faced three successive great guards. It started in the Sweet 16 with Loyola-Illinois’ Alfrederick Hughes, the leading scorer in the nation. He was held to eight points. Up next was Georgia Tech’s Mark Price, a future NBA star in Cleveland. Price shot 3-for-16. And it finished in the Final Four against Mullin, merely the Player of the Year. He only got off eight shots, never reached the foul line and only scored eight points.
*And the bottom line—they won one national title and came within a basket of two more, in spite of having questionable offensive skills. That’s called defensive domination.
I don’t advocate for Georgetown because I’m a fan. I couldn’t stand them back in the day. I loved Chris Mullin—a fellow Irish Catholic and recovered alcoholic. I loved Akeem Olajuwon, then with the University of Houston, who lost the NCAA final to Georgetown in 1984—so much so that I wanted my confirmation name to be “Akeem” (It didn’t become “Hakeem” until he was in the pros). But that didn’t fly. And neither did opposing offenses when they faced Georgetown in the Ewing era. That’s why, love them or hate them, they were the best college basketball defense of the modern era.