With perhaps the most frustrating season of his coaching career nearing its conclusion, Georgetown’s John Thompson III took time last week to answer a couple of the most pressing questions raised by his team’s underachieving campaign.
After beginning the season 12-3 with victories against local rival Maryland, Memphis (in overtime), then-No. 2 Connecticut and then-No. 8 Syracuse, the Hoyas staggered to a 4-10 mark the rest of the way.
On Tuesday, the Hoyas (16-13) face St. John’s (15-16) as the No. 12 seed in the Big East tournament. Barring a miraculous five-game run through the bracket at Madison Square Garden, Georgetown’s streak of NCAA tournament appearances will end at three Sunday when the school likely will accept an NIT bid.
Thompson has tabbed youth as the primary culprit in Georgetown’s collapse. Given that the squad features only two upperclassmen on a 10-man roster that analyst Ken Pomeroy ranks 315th out of 344 Division I teams in terms of experience, blaming much of the swoon on youth would seem to be a credible claim.
But Georgetown’s crash has resulted in questions about Thompson’s approach. Two elements of his coaching style that have drawn particular scrutiny during the winter of his discontent are Thompson’s comparatively mellow sideline demeanor and his finesse-favoring approach to post players.
Thompson is not a screamer, not in a suit on the sideline nor in sweats behind closed doors at McDonough Gymnasium. He doesn’t point and swear at his players - no matter the magnitude of the sin - for all the world to see and hear.
His on-court demeanor was never perceived as a coaching weakness during his first four seasons on the Hilltop, when his teams compiled a 100-36 record, earned three NCAA tournament berths, captured back-to-back Big East regular-season titles for the first time in program history and made a Final Four appearance.
And he refuses to change his tact, even for this season’s error-prone group, which often seemed listless in compiling a 2-6 record in games decided by six or fewer points or in overtime.
“This is a philosophical thing - maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong - but I think a lot of people forget that these are college students,” Thompson said. “I think a lot of people want to hear me come out and blast this team, jump all over whoever, and they forget that these are young men. They’re not pros. … I don’t come over to [the media] and say, ‘Little Billy is killing us.’ I’ve never done that and I never will. I do [get on them], but you guys don’t see it. … It’s not for public consumption.”
That doesn’t mean Thompson has been happy with his team’s progress or toughness this season. Twice after key players sat out with injuries in critical losses (DaJuan Summers at Cincinnati and Austin Freeman at St. John’s), Thompson’s angst was obvious in his postgame remarks.
“He came out for warmups and came back and said he couldn’t go,” Thompson said of Freeman’s hip pointer after last week’s overtime loss to the Red Storm.
Thompson used the same phrase a month earlier in reference to Summers’ ankle at Cincinnati. Both times the decision was clearly the player’s, not that of team trainer Lorry Michel or Thompson. Asked whether the syntax and resulting implied statement on toughness - or lack thereof - was intentional, Thompson said plenty by replying: “No comment.”
Any issues with toughness may lie with the way his teams seem to be ill-constructed to contend in the rugged Big East. His system demands big men with perimeter skills, leaving no room for the traditional post banger tethered to the rim.
Rebounding has been an issue for the Hoyas since Thompson arrived on the Hilltop; this season, the Hoyas ranked 13th in the Big East in rebounding margin (minus-0.5), and his system has yet to produce a player among the league’s leading rebounders.
“I don’t think I’ve ever said that you don’t need rugged players,” said Thompson, who admits he and his staff are still scouring the country to locate another post recruit to replace signing day defection DaShonte Riley. “I’ve never said, ‘Oh, we strictly want finesse players.’ I am very familiar with the Big East and what type of conference it is and what you need to survive in the Big East.”
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