John Thompson III stays focused on Georgetown amid Big East transformation

Initially, the concept of an event such as the SEC/Big East Challenge was to give college basketball fans the opportunity to check out some intriguing interconference matchups, like Friday night’s tilt between No. 20 Georgetown and Tennessee, as well as foster the notion of conference pride.

Now, given the ever-fluid landscape of conference realignment, the idea that the SEC or Big East will continue to exist as we know it grows more distant with each passing day as traditional conference rivalries, teams and borders are thrown overboard.

Conference pride has given way to conference survival, and no one has felt that impact more than the Big East. In the latest round of chair shuffling, hoops power Louisville left the crumbling league Wednesday for the somewhat greener pastures of the ACC, putting the Hoyas in a precarious position as a basketball school in a football world.

“Intercollegiate athletics is going through a transformation, an evolution,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said Thursday. “We’re not close to being done.”

Two seasons ago, 11 Big East teams qualified for the NCAA tournament. Now, five of them — Louisville, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, West Virginia and Syracuse — are gone or headed out the door, with Rutgers joining them and rumors flying that Connecticut would love to be the next team to flee.

Thompson has maintained that the league will continue to thrive and remain a basketball force despite the departures, but that argument seems on shaky ground as the league replaces traditional powers with the likes of Boise State and Tulane.

“What I think is important is that I’m the coach of Georgetown,” Thompson said. “And Georgetown has always been good before the Big East, in the Big East as we have known it and we’re going to be good the future, whatever the future holds. I’m not a fortuneteller, but I do know that we are going to be good.”

Most of the Hoyas players professed ambivalence about the shifting ground under their feet but did acknowledge they were aware of the movements.

“The Big East is one of the best leagues, so seeing teams leave is a surprise,” sophomore forward Otto Porter said.

Added guard Markel Starks: “All this moving creates an atmosphere where there’s a lot of controversy. You get asked a lot of questions. But we’re Georgetown, and whatever happens, happens.”

At some point, however, Georgetown is going to have to face the hard truths about its future, along with fellow basketball-first schools such as Villanova, Marquette and St. John’s. But Thompson said he hasn’t reached that stage yet.

“I think that’s a question probably best answered not by John Thompson,” he said. “The bottom line is that every school is probably posturing as best it can behind the scenes.”

Whatever happens in the short-term, it’s clear that the Hoyas and the Big East aren’t going to escape questions about their future.

“Time will tell,” Thompson said. “I’m getting ready for Tennessee.”

We do have a game [Friday], in case you forgot.”

The Hoyas (4-1) will get their second shot at an SEC foe, after the season opener against Florida was called at halftime due to moisture on the USS Bataan. The Volunteers (4-1) have had close games in nearly all of their nonconference wins and a big loss against their lone “name” opponent of the season, Oklahoma State.

But Tennessee does present a challenge given its up-tempo style and solid front line.

“We have to get back,” Porter said. “Once the ball goes up, everyone has to get to the boards, but we also have to get back in transition. Keying on that will help us a lot in this game. We have to play good defense. We’ve played against big guys before and we can defend them.”

Sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes is averaging 15.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists to lead the Volunteers, with junior guard Trae Golden chipping in with another 5.2 assists. Trying to get a handle on those players, not the latest in conference machinations, is what Thompson is most concerned about right now.

“It’s important stuff that’s going on,” Thompson admitted. “But you can become so engrossed with that that you really do forget about Tennessee. If you spend ‘X’ amount of hours over the last 24-48 hours focusing on conference issues, you forget about the fact that Stokes is pretty darn good and we’re going to have our hands full trying to stop him and that Golden is outstanding and he does a good job of facilitating.

“It’s a part of what we’re going through, but I think that’s evolution. It hasn’t finished. I think there’s going to be more evolution as it relates to basketball-only conference members as well as others.”

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