- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2008

Ohio State’s Thad Matta will never forget his first postgame handshake with John Thompson III.

The brief meeting took place March 19, 2006, at halfcourt of Dayton Arena moments after Thompson’s Hoyas battered the second-seeded Buckeyes by 18 points in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Impressed by the efficient throttling the Hoyas authored in his own backyard, Matta offered up his highest praise, “Coach, keep playing like that and you’re liable to win a national championship.”

Without a second’s hesitation, Thompson squeezed Matta’s hand and replied simply, “I know.”

It wasn’t the answer Matta expected, not from the second-year coach of a seventh-seeded team making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2001. No matter how impressive the pedigree, such a comment was memorable coming from a coach preparing to make his first trip to the Sweet 16.

“There was no arrogance in his words,” Matta says. “In fact, the thing that struck me is he didn’t even say it with confidence as much as inevitability. Aside from being glad he wasn’t coaching in the Big Ten, I thought, ‘Wow, there goes a man of singular purpose.’ ”

Perhaps some witnesses inwardly chuckled when Thompson boldly stated he would lead the Hoyas to another national title moments after he was introduced as the foundering program’s coach in April 2004.

Nobody’s laughing now, not after the Hoyas averaged 25 victories in Thompson’s first four seasons, collecting a Final Four appearance (2007), a Big East tournament title (2007) and back-to-back regular-season conference crowns (2007-08) along the way.

For some coaches, that’s a career’s worth of accomplishments. For the 42-year-old Thompson, it’s simply a solid first step toward far grander goals.

After dinner last month, Thompson repeated the program’s destination with the same cool certainty that resonated so powerfully with Matta:

“We will win a national championship. We will.”

For anyone who cashes checks in the coaching business, passion is a prerequisite. Obsession is optional. But the line between the two is often blurry.

Thompson has the knowledge, an acumen for the game worthy of his Pops (John Thompson Jr.) plus Pete (Carril) pedigree. He also has what coaches everywhere call “the gift,” a preternatural calm amid late-game chaos that has helped him steer the Hoyas to a 19-4 record in one-possession games since he arrived on the Hilltop.

But it’s his near-obsessive work ethic that makes Thompson truly special. While his father was part pioneer, Thompson the younger is pure practitioner.

Athletes are fond of saying, “It’s what I do, not who I am.” Thompson’s personality requires no such partitions. That’s what happens in that rarest of circumstances when obsession marries occupation.

“To be honest, I have no hobbies,” Thompson says. “There is very little free time in this profession, and what little I have goes to my family. Every once in a blue moon, I’ll go fishing. Not sport fishing off a big boat or anything. Just sitting at the end of a dock with a line in the water. You know, it’s amazing how many recruiting calls you can make with a fishing pole in the water.

“Mary Jane [Cratty, Thompson’s executive assistant,] likes to tell a story about the time I tried to take a week off down at the shore while I was at Princeton. I think it was like my second year as the head coach there, and I was about two days into the week when I called the office to see how things were going. Mary Jane said everything was just fine, but she wished I would just come on back to work instead of calling her for an update every 90 minutes.”

That’s about how often the complexion of Georgetown’s future roster changed this spring. Key reserves Vernon Macklin and Jeremiah Rivers transferred out of the program, Florida State freshman Julian Vaughn transferred in and senior signee Chris Braswell confirmed he would be spending an extra year prepping at Hargrave Military Academy. Including highly touted incoming prospects Greg Monroe, Henry Sims and Jason Clark, the Hoyas will dress just nine scholarship players next season.

But Thompson already was busy rectifying that situation before Macklin and Rivers even had left campus. A relentless recruiter, Thompson is well on his way to backing up this year’s consensus top-10 recruiting class with an equally decorated group for 2009-10. Joining Los Angeles swingman Hollis Thompson in the fold (with a verbal commitment) is rising Detroit Country Day senior DaShonte Riley, a 6-foot-10, 220-pound center who chose Georgetown over Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State.

“I have to be careful when I compare guys to [former Country Day stars] Chris Webber and Shane Battier because both of those guys were national college players of the year,” says Kurt Keener, the prep school’s longtime coach. “But DaShonte has a tremendous amount of potential. Skillwise, in terms of his hands, shooting touch, raw physical tools and talent, DaShonte has every bit as much ability as those two guys.”

Thompson will have a chance to deepen his relationships with a number of other primary Georgetown recruiting targets next month when he steps in as an assistant coach for the USA Basketball under-18 team. Tryouts and practices for the squad, which will compete in Argentina from July 14 to 18, will be held at Verizon Center from July 1 to 10, giving Thompson the opportunity to work with Hollis Thompson; Brooklyn shooting guard Lance Stephenson; Raleigh, N.C., forward Ryan Kelly; Memphis, Tenn., point guard Leslie McDonald; and standout forwards Isaiah Armwood and Terrell Vinson from Montrose Christian in Rockville.

Thompson then will accompany the team abroad as one of two assistants to coach Bob McKillop. The story line of working under the Davidson coach isn’t lost on Thompson, who was handed the most bitter defeat of his coaching career when McKillop’s Wildcats upset the second-seeded Hoyas 74-70 in the second round of last season’s NCAA tournament.

“That’s certainly not an issue,” Thompson says of working with McKillop. “I’ve spent a ton of time watching games in gyms all over the country with Coach McKillop. When I was at Princeton, we were constantly recruiting the same kids he was. I’ve gotten to know Bob very well over the years, and we get along very well.”

Though Thompson still has a difficult time discussing the Davidson defeat, he already has begun channeling the lingering disappointment, reshaping yesterday’s pain into tomorrow’s purpose.

“The Davidson game illustrates the beauty of the NCAA tournament. It’s one game, and you move on or go home,” Thompson says, pausing silently to catalogue the reasons the Hoyas lost to Stephen Curry and the Wildcats. “Yeah, thinking about that game hurts, probably always will. Time will tell, but that game probably will serve as a driving force for me.”

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