In 1992, Shaka Smart was just another 15-year-old watching Michael Jordan’s Bulls take on Patrick Ewing’s Knicks in game seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Smart watched the competitive series anxiously, as his Bulls struggled to pull away from Ewing and the Knicks. He watched the battle of home-court advantage dart back and forth with a different winner for games four, five and six before Chicago finally managed to escape Ewing’s grasp in game seven.
Now, 27 years later, Smart will have the opportunity to coach against the hall of fame player who terrorized, but never defeated, his Bulls in the early-mid 90s.
“To be one of the top 50 players to play this game, the humility he has, the work ethic he has … he’s just a really high-level person,” Smart said. “The guys (at Georgetown), they understand who they’re being coached by, and there’s a real respect and admiration for (Ewing).”
Thursday night Texas will play its second blue blood opponent of the season at basketball’s most iconic venue: the Georgetown Hoyas at Madison Square Garden in the final rounds of the 2k Empire Classic.
Georgetown, a perennial powerhouse that has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2015, isn’t back to its elite level yet — but it’s slowly climbing back.
Since hiring Ewing following the 2016 season, the Hoyas have shown gradual improvement annually. A formerly floundering program which posted losing records in consecutive seasons for the first time since the early ‘70s has slowly but surely regained its footing behind the leadership of Patrick Ewing, arguably Georgetown’s most notable alumni.
Thursday night will mark Georgetown’s first outing against a ranked opponent this season, as the No. 22 Longhorns aim to continue their winning streak through nonconference play.
For Smart, Georgetown’s length is a top concern.
Although Texas saw similar length and athleticism nearly two weeks ago against Purdue, Smart has no doubt that junior forward Jericho Sims will have his hands full with senior seven-footer Omer Yurtseven.
“I think Jericho has gotten off to the best start to a year he’s had in his three years here,” Smart said. “(But) it’s going to be a great test for our (frontcourt) and for our team overall.”
Sims attributes his hot start to the season, 8.3 points per game and more than seven rebounds, to the strictness and discipline of his teammates.
Being physically stronger with the ball in his hands, along with some tough love from his teammates, allowed Sims to secure his first double-double against California Baptist on Nov. 12.
“My teammates got on me (about being more aggressive),” Sims said. “But I just have to do that from the beginning to make it easier on myself. It’s a lot harder to stop if I just go up strong and dunk it.”
Sophomore guard Courtney Ramey, who has emerged as a team leader early in the season, offered high praise for Sims even with his inconsistent aggressiveness.
“We believe in our bigs,” Ramey said. “Jericho is probably the most athletic big in the country, so we believe in him over anyone in the country. Whatever our coach wants us to do, we’re just going to do it.”