John Thompson III took the microphone and made a very un-JT3-like declaration.
Speaking in front of the Georgetown players, cheerleaders, pep band and the 1,000 or so students and other fans who had crowded into the campus dining hall to learn the Hoyas’ NCAA tournament seeding, Thompson thanked them all for coming and added: “We plan on being around for a while.”
And, no, he was not talking about loitering for an extra hour or two by the hot dog and nacho bars.
The coach who almost always measures his words carefully and avoids big-picture statements whenever possible has, in his own way, let it be known that he’s expecting more than the usual when his Hoyas, seeded No. 2 in the South, begin the NCAAs with a round of 64 game against Florida Gulf Coast on Friday in Philadelphia.
As the crowd began to filter out from the Sunday gathering, Thompson was asked if his statement was a reflection of his expectations for this year’s team. He answered simply: “Yep.” Asked to explain himself further, he laughed and playfully said he was indeed talking about sticking around in the dining hall, then eventually shut down the topic with: “I’m not commenting. Next question.”
His players were more than happy to interpret.
Forward Nate Lubick: “I think he realizes we’ve got a pretty good group of guys this year, and we’re going to be a tough team for any team in this tournament to beat.”
Big East player of the year Otto Porter: “We’re looking to go to the Final Four.”
Thompson has been to the Final Four with Georgetown, taking a team led by Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert to the national semifinals in 1997. Since then it’s been nothing but early exits, with no Hoyas team advancing past the first weekend.
Asked how the squad can learn from those defeats, junior point guard Markel Starks said: “It’s the thing between your ears, and the thing off to the left of your chest. It takes a lot of that. … Having those losses, it puts an extra chip on your shoulder.”
Thompson doesn’t speak with the bombast of his Hall of Fame father, who coached Georgetown to three Final Fours in the 1980s, but that makes the younger Thompson’s best sound bites all the more memorable. It was on the day he was hired in 2004 that he said: “A few people have forgotten about Georgetown, but we’re going to work our butts off to remind them” — a quote that inspired T-shirts in the student section at the Verizon Center and proved prophetic in the years that followed.
He has reason to be optimistic about this year’s team because of the way it persevered after an 0-2 start in Big East play, during a stretch in which the Hoyas had barely a lick of offense. The loss of starter Greg Whittington for academic reasons appeared to be a fatal blow, but it instead prompted Thompson to go younger, smaller, faster and deeper with his rotation. The defense was always there, but now Georgetown was starting to score again, and Porter began showing a new level of assertiveness that led to the conference regular season title.
“At 0-2,” Thompson said, “I told the guys, ‘We expect to win the league this year.’”
Thompson was his usual stoic self when Georgetown’s name appeared during the selection broadcast, keeping his arms folded on the table while everyone around him was waving arms and was cheering. He explained later that he wasn’t being a party-pooper — he was just taken aback when he saw that the Hoyas had drawn a completely unfamiliar opponent.
“To be in a position where you know your name’s going to be called is a great feeling,” Thompson said. “Now, what immediately goes through my head is, ‘How long is it going to take (the sports information director) to get me stats on this team?’ And he was pretty quick.”
While the selection event was still ongoing, Thompson dispatched some assistants to start breaking down the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast, a state university in Fort Myers that admitted its first student in 1997 and made the NCAAs in its second year of Division I eligibility by winning this month’s Atlantic Sun tournament.
“I may be the only coach in the country to feel this way: I don’t go into it worrying about what are we going to be seeded,” Thompson said. “It’s the opposition, because there can be times when you can be a third seed and you have a better matchup than a two seed or a four seed, and so it’s all about Florida Gulf Coast as opposed to our seed.”
Although his team is young, Thompson has a major reason to accelerate his expectations this year. This might be the last chance he gets with Porter, a sophomore who remains cagey about whether he plans to bolt for the NBA this summer.
“I don’t know yet,” Porter said Sunday. “We’ll see.”