- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2000

For 17 years, Craig Esherick waited quietly in coach John Thompson's rather sizeable shadow. As an assistant at Georgetown, Esherick provided a placid, mercurial foil to the outspoken Thompson. After all, Thompson was a center, a focal point in stature and by nature, while Esherick was a shooting guard, a man seemingly more comfortable on the perimeter of his profession.

Less than two years ago, Esherick was jolted out of that comfort zone when Thompson resigned in the midst of a turbulent season, leaving the reins to his crumbling dynasty to his silent second in command.

Some folks questioned Esherick's intensity and ambition, wondering aloud why the man behind the mustache hadn't taken another head job during his lengthy tenure on the Hilltop. And most expected the career assistant to simply maintain the status quo. Little did the college basketball world know.

As the Hoyas enter their second full season under Esherick, a vibrant new aura surrounds the program call it an unmistakable freshness.

Thanks to the 44-year-old attorney-cum-coach and his staff, the Hoyas (1-0) are on the verge of their first Top 25 ranking since 1996. Every preseason publication has picked Georgetown to earn its first NCAA tournament bid in four seasons. The roster is deeper than it's been in a decade. Next season's recruiting class is already inked, featuring blue-chip forward Harvey Thomas and top area point prospect Tony Bethel (both of Rockville's Montrose Christian Academy). And plans are already in place to overhaul Georgetown's traditionally soft early season schedule and convert decrepit McDonough Arena into a 7,000-seat, on-campus facility.

Welcome to the Esherick Era.

"There is definitely a lot of excitement surrounding the program right now," said Esherick last week. "But we've still got an NIT banner hanging up in the gym, so we've got plenty to prove."

Last year, Esherick's first full season at the helm, resulted in a 19-15 record and a trip to the NIT, a galling fact for a man who accompanied Thompson to three Final Four appearances and a national title (1984). And while Esherick is certainly less demonstrative than Thompson, he's far more intense than his somewhat subdued sideline demeanor might imply. Esherick unquestionably has an edge; his methods are simply more subtle than those of his predecessor.

To make certain that his charges don't get too puffed up over positive preseason predictions, Esherick taped a huge NIT banner above the urinals in the Georgetown locker room.

"Don't believe all that Mr. Mellow stuff," says junior point guard Kevin Braswell. "Coach Esherick might not be yelling and screaming all the time, but he gets his point across. You ought to see him in practice or in the locker room. He can get plenty animated."

Braswell is intimately acquainted with Esherick's less sensitive side. Last season, the pair engaged in a series of "chats" in which Esherick attempted to convince the Baltimore native to pass first and shoot only as a last option.

After nearly two seasons defined by erratic performances, Braswell finally took Eshericks's advice to heart before the Big East tournament. The results were dramatic, the point guard averaging 18.4 points and 5.8 assists in Georgetown's run through the postseason, which included an upset of top-seeded Syracuse in the Big East tournament and a triple-overtime victory at Virginia in the NIT.

"It wasn't easy for Kevin," said Esherick of his point guard's maturation. "But he stuck with it. His attitude has been great, and to see the product of all those discussions we had was very satisfying. That's most of why I decided to coach and not practice law, because you can't get that from law or just about any other job. You can't get the personal satisfaction of seeing someone's personal development and knowing that you had maybe a little something to do with that development. That's the joy of being a teacher and the joy of coaching."

Recruiting, on the other hand, is often the self-effacing gruntwork of coaching. But with the help of assistants Ronny Thompson and Chip Simms, Esherick has reversed the program's recruiting slide of the 1990s with a dose of the same zeal he feels for teaching.

Unlike Thompson, who was notorious for holding his scholarships until the last minute in hopes of landing platinum prepsters, Esherick has focused on signing slightly less heralded recruits early in the process. Though Esherick would never utter a critical word of his mentor, he will admit that his approach is less risky. All too often during Thompson's later years, Georgetown would court a top-ranked prospect until the final day of the signing period only to watch as those players routinely chose the NBA or another school over Georgetown.

"The one thing I will tell you is the programs that have done well have signed quality players in the early signing period," said Esherick. "When you don't do that, you do get put behind the 8-ball."

In the last two seasons, Georgetown has signed four potential stars in the early signing period, including freshman power forward Michael Sweetney, freshman swingman Gerald Riley, Thomas and Bethel. Though none of the four are McDonald's All-Americans on par with noteworthy Thompson signings Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Othella Harrington or Allen Iverson, all are ranked higher than Thompson's average desperation signing, giving Georgetown more depth than it enjoyed in Big John's final six or seven seasons.

For instance, the third player off the Georgetown bench this season will be sophomore forward Courtland Freeman, a top-60 recruit from a year ago who would have started on most of Thompson's teams.

"All this stuff runs in cycles," said Esherick, going out of his way to downplay his recruiting achievements and watch Thompson's toes. "In some ways, we've gotten lucky. In some ways, that circle has come back around, and the cycle is in our favor now. Other than that, I couldn't tell you what we've done different."

What Esherick has clearly done differently than Thompson is push for other changes within the program. Georgetown is currently in the midst of negotiating home-and-away series' with Duke, UCLA and South Carolina, marking a distinct departure from Thompson's fancy for non-conference patsies.

And Esherick has already pushed the university into agreeing to renovate outdated McDonough Arena.

"It's on the 10-year plan now. And what we have to do is get it built sooner than five years," said Esherick. "What the builders would do is dig down through the existing floor to create a lower bowl for about 2,000 seats. Then they would turn the court [perpendicular] to the way it is now, so you would have more room for seats on either side. There will be six skybox suites, and it will seat between 6,000 and 7,200.

"Obviously, a new gym would enhance the university from a recruiting standpoint, but I think it would also provide the students with better access to our games. This will provide them an opportunity to come to games and provide an atmosphere that will enable us to have a true homecourt advantage."

Esherick's vision for a new building could climb up the university's priority list if Georgetown outstrips expectations this season and advances well into the NCAA tournament.

The team will spend Thanksgiving in Honolulu, competing in the Hawaii Pacific Thanksgiving Classic against decidedly inferior competition. If the Hoyas return to the mainland with a 4-0 record and the tournament trophy in hand, they will almost certainly find themselves in the Top 25 for the first time under Esherick. Judging by all the hubbub on the Hilltop, it won't be the last time.

"There's just a whole new feeling around here this year," said Braswell. "I can't explain it, but it's a feeling I haven't had in a long time. I actually want to come to practice and compete against these guys every day. I've never felt like that before. It used to be like, 'Aw, man, we've got to go to practice again.' That feeling is totally out of there.

"I played for a 35-0 team in high school [at Maine Central Institute], so I know what it takes to win, and we've got it all here right now."

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