- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

The more talented the artist, the less likely he is to be impressed by his own work.

Ask first-year Georgetown coach John Thompson III about the revival taking place on the Hilltop, and he’ll tell you it’s only January.

Tell him the Hoyas (13-5, 5-2 Big East) are off to their best conference start since Allen Iverson was breaking ankles in Landover (1995-96), and he’ll remind you there are nine Big East games remaining.

Explain that the Hoyas are in the top 40 of the RPI (36) for the first time in nearly a decade, and he’ll change the subject to Boston College’s flex offense.

Implore him to unlock the secrets of the Princeton offense, and he’ll respond with a straight face that his practices are devoted to dribbling, passing, shooting and defense.

Push him on his sideline mojo, the late-game magic that has propelled his Hoyas to a 4-1 record in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, and he’ll tell you today’s genius is tomorrow’s moron.

Mention the buzz that started inside the Beltway and finally has reached Bristol, Conn., and the 38-year-old coach will shrug his shoulders.

“I hate to say the buzz is irrelevant, but this is about us,” said Thompson, whose surging Hoyas face No.8 Boston College (17-0, 6-0) tomorrow night in Chestnut Hill. “I don’t think it’s good to look at the big picture. As we win games, sure, the perception of us changes. Winning is a good thing. But buzz or no buzz, we have to be better this week than we were last week. And it’s still far too early to start assessing this season.”

Not if you ask the collective basketball community. ESPN’s Dick Vitale calls Thompson the midseason favorite for national coach of the year honors. Notre Dame senior guard Chris Thomas calls the Hoyas’ turnaround “stunning,” the same word Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun has chosen on several occasions.

“What John is doing there is just stunning,” Calhoun said earlier this week. “He’s taken roughly the same personnel that won four games in this league last year and turned them into a factor basically overnight. He’s reprogrammed all those kids, taught them a new system, taught them how to win in less than half a season. That’s just extraordinary.”

To quantify extraordinary you have to understand just how low the Hoyas were last season during a stretch swoon that included nine straight losses (including one to a pickup squad from St. John’s), a program-worst 4-12 Big East finish and the school’s first sub-.500 regular season (15-16) since 1973.

“It was so bad it’s hard to put into words,” said junior forward Brandon Bowman, the Hoyas’ leading scorer this season (15.2 points). “Teams looked at us like we were a joke. We walked around campus with our heads down. The whole year was humiliating.”

Such was the shattered roster-wide psychology Thompson inherited after the ouster of former coach Craig Esherick. And if Thompson wasn’t certain as to the depths of the emotional scar tissue carried by his squad, the Hoyas’ season-opening loss to Temple (75-57) left little doubt.

“Coaching that game was different,” said Thompson, who was startled by the resignation etched on the collective face of his team when it trailed the Owls by 13 points at halftime. “There were some things that had to be addressed there. I’ve never had a team that came into the huddle and the look on everyone’s face at halftime and the beginning of the second half was, ‘It’s over.’ I said, ‘Hold on, fellas. There’s a lot of ball left to play here.’ That’s something we’ve talked about a lot. And we’ve changed. We’ve grown. I think our group now understands that we can get down and fight back.”

In fact, resilience has become the hallmark of this season’s Hoyas, who have come from behind in each of their five conference victories, as well as outplaying Connecticut and Syracuse after intermission in their only Big East losses. Therein lies Thompson’s greatest contribution to his young team and perhaps his strongest attribute as a coach.

Sure, he’s installed a new offense and instilled a tireless work ethic, but the first thing he gave his young charges was hope, confidence, the belief they could, and would, win.

“We believe, you know,” Bowman said. “Coach Thompson is responsible for that. After the Temple game, he took us back to square one emotionally. Coach made it very clear that all of the losing and doubt and everything was in the past. After that, it was like a rebirth, a fresh start. He told us we would win now and not later if we put the past in the past and started believing in ourselves and giving it all up for each other every day on the court. All of a sudden, basketball was fun again.”

The technical aspect of Thompson’s impact has been equally dramatic for anyone who has seen the Hoyas play this season. Though Georgetown has struggled at times with the execution of Thompson’s Princeton-based scheme, the squad’s commitment to the concept has been absolute.

The old offense was based on individual dribble-drive skills, traditional low-post entries and tenacity on the offensive glass — the college hoops version of dump-and-chase hockey. The new offense is based on constant motion, a high-post entry, a relentless series of cuts and patience — think Brazilian soccer.

“It’s based on hard work and shot selection,” said Ashanti Cook, who twice has played the hero this season with last-second, game-winning assists. “Coach is all about hard work. Every day we go at it hard for three hours. And the system, the Princeton offense, forces you to learn the game. You have to make hard cuts, be aware of your spacing, set screens, see the open man, share the ball — things of that nature. You work for good looks and learn to understand what is and what is not a good shot. It’s not magic.”

Perhaps not — though arriving on the Hilltop to find Esherick had bequeathed you one of the most underrated recruits in the program’s history must have been a near-mystical experience for Thompson.

Jeff Green, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound freshman forward, is the prototypical triggerman for Thompson’s high post-centric offense. The three-time Big East rookie of the week has the agility to blow past like-sized defenders, the range to rain pain on smaller defenders, the passing skills to dissect defenses not constantly vigilant for backdoor cuts and the warrior mentality of the players Thompson’s Hall of Fame father was legendary for producing in his 27 seasons on the Hilltop.

“He’s the best freshman in the league by far,” said St. John’s coach Norm Roberts, who watched Green strap 21 points and nine rebounds on the Red Storm in Georgetown’s 66-57 victory Tuesday night at MCI Center.

But for every Green, Thompson inherited a Roy Hibbert, the Hoyas’ raw though tantalizing 7-foot-2 freshman center. And Thompson’s work with Hibbert has been masterful.

Though he clearly has a more productive lineup on the floor when sixth man Darrel Owens replaces Hibbert, Thompson has started the towering Hibbert since the early stages of the season, knowing a few slow starts likely will be repaid with interest when Hibbert blossoms on the blocks.

“It doesn’t matter who starts, and I like the energy and the change with Darrel coming off the bench,” Thompson said of the strategy. “Plus, a large part of where our growth is lies with Roy.”

That’s one of the few big-picture admissions or concrete opinions you’ll get out of the linear-minded Thompson, a quiet man constantly in the moment. Where his father was part philosopher, Thompson the younger is pure pragmatist. And where his predecessor was given to bluster, Thompson rarely raises his voice.

“He’s real cool,” Bowman said. “If I didn’t know any better, I would think he’s from California. He’ll get on you if he needs to, but he’s not a screamer. He makes his point and moves on. He’s real chill that way.”

Perhaps that mellow demeanor is why Thompson’s players have responded so well to his instruction and criticism.

Perhaps that easygoing magnetism is why Georgetown is one big man away from signing a top-20 class of blue-chip recruits.

Perhaps that imperturbable composure is why his teams have always been so calm in the clutch. In games decided by five points or less, Thompson’s teams at Princeton (20-15) and Georgetown (4-1) have gone 24-16, superb by any standard.

Perhaps that cool confidence is why last season’s laughingstock suddenly looks like this season’s NCAA tournament surprise.

“Coach is always keeping us focused on the next game, but making the [NCAA] tournament is something that is on my mind every day,” Bowman said. “There’s a thin line between passion and obsession, and I guess I’m closer to obsessed about it now. I’ve watched all my friends from home who play Division I ball make the tournament. When they’re playing in the tournament and you’re sitting at home year after year, you get hungry … real hungry. And that part of it, the hunger, Coach doesn’t mind.”

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