- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 16, 2004

This isn’t your father’s Georgetown.

Both on and off the court, first-year coach John Thompson III is making serious changes to the program his legendary father turned into a Big East behemoth.

The walls in the basketball offices at McDonough Gymnasium sparkle with a fresh coat of paint and a series of flashy new shadowboxes containing relics and pictures from the program’s past. From the deflated basketball “Pops” kept on his desk for 27 years to slick photos of program-defining players like Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson, the once decrepit space which suggested “We were Georgetown” has been transformed into a place that now professionally proclaims “We are Georgetown.”

An attic once cluttered with the debris of a devolving dynasty has been converted into a computer lab and study hall. A new team room has been furnished with plush leather furniture and a giant flat-screen TV. The space which once screamed, “Sell, sell, sell” to recruits and outsiders taking stock of the situation is now a selling point for the Hoyas.

“When I walked into this office, in many ways it looked the same way as it did when I was a kid,” says the 38-year-old Thompson, settling into one of the team room’s leather chairs. “That wasn’t bad, I just thought we needed something different. A fresh start all around, if you will.”

The university began the renovation process last spring, firing longtime assistant and six-year head coach Craig Esherick after the Hoyas finished the season (13-15, 4-12 Big East) with nine straight losses and failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 1972-73, the elder Thompson’s first year on the Hilltop.

And the son who would be king has amped up the transformation process since he was hired away from his alma mater (Princeton) in April, bringing in an entirely new staff (assistants Robert Burke, Kevin Broadus and Sydney Johnson), giving McDonough a desperately needed facelift, signing the team to an exclusive apparel deal with Team Jordan, re-establishing Georgetown’s presence as a serious player in the college recruiting wars and, most recently, tirelessly teaching the Princeton offense to a returning roster that routinely relied on waning individual talent under Esherick.

There has been considerable chatter among both Georgetown fans and hoops’ pundits about whether the Princeton offense can succeed in the Big East. But Thompson scoffs at the skepticism.

“People talk about the quote-unquote Princeton offense, but it’s more how to play than it is any set of plays,” says Thompson. “It’s a sharing, selfless mind-set. The Sacramento Kings are running it. The New Jersey Nets are running it. Air Force and Northwestern are running it.

“If you pop in tapes of any two of those teams, it looks completely different because of the personnel and strengths and weaknesses of those teams. The one constant you’ll see among those teams though is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If the system works in Sacramento and New Jersey, why wouldn’t it work in the Big East? That’s why I don’t have any doubts that it can work here.”

And though the season-opener (Monday vs. Temple) is likely to provide a brutal first exam for the adjusting Hoyas, Thompson already has convinced his team of the merits of the system.

“I love how many more options are available,” says junior guard Ashanti Cook. “It’s not just basic basketball. It’s almost like high-speed chess.”

Says junior forward Brandon Bowman, the Hoyas’ returning leader in scoring (15.9 points) and rebounding (8.1): “It’s like we’re all learning to play basketball all over again. It’s natural when you’re coming up to focus on your own game and skills. But this system shifts the focus. All of a sudden, our primary concern is how we can make each other better. So, yeah, I like what we’re doing. I like the mind-set of everyone. We’re real optimistic, and everybody comes to practice ready to go hard and learn, because I think we all believe in the direction of the program now.”

But it will take considerably more than mere conviction for the Hoyas, picked to finish 11th ahead of only St. John’s in the Big East, to better last season’s 4-12 league record. A handful of the softest games on the schedule disappeared when Miami and Virginia Tech bolted to the ACC. And with just three returning players who averaged meaningful minutes last season (Cook, Bowman and senior forward D.J. Owens), Georgetown will have to lean heavily on a quartet of raw, if talented, freshmen recruits — 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert, 6-9 forwards Cornelio Guibunda and Jeff Green, and 6-4 guard Tyler Crawford.

“We don’t have time to cry about what we don’t have,” says Thompson, sounding very much like his father. “It’s obvious that we don’t have much depth or experience, but those freshmen have to look at that as a tremendous opportunity. We’ve challenged them, and they’ll have to grow up in a hurry.”

Significant backcourt help is on the way next season, as Georgetown has commitments from three top-150 prep recruits last week in combo guard Josh Thornton, and wing players Octavious Spann and Marc Egerson. And Thompson and his staff narrowly missed on one of the nation’s top players, program-building center Vernon Goodridge of Philadelphia’s Lutheran Christian Academy. Goodridge, who most expect to be a one-season college player, chose Mississippi State over the Hoyas and his mother’s wishes.

“Just missing on Goodridge was tough for Georgetown, but I think his interest shows you what a big step Thompson and his staff have taken in restoring the luster of the program among blue-chip recruits,” says Rob Harrington, who covers college recruiting for PrepStars. “The Hoyas started popping up on everybody’s list after Thompson took over. That’s impressive, because it’s really like a completely new introduction for their program. Georgetown wasn’t in the mix for virtually any blue-chip guys over the last several years. I think the Hoyas have to show those elite types of players something on the court before they’ll sign with them. But I have a feeling that day is coming.”

That day is looming because there’s an energetic new hoops force on the Hilltop. Unlike his predecessor, Thompson is unencumbered by a staff and a style of play the college game passed by more than a decade ago. His hand isn’t weighted down with the ring that sometimes encourages stagnation and excuses sloth. And while he respects and even celebrates the past, he isn’t content to live in it. Georgetown’s new JT is focused on the present and optimistic about the future.

“I would not be here if I didn’t think it was possible to win another national championship at Georgetown,” says Thompson. “But that’s big-picture thinking and a long-term goal. I’m more of a process guy. My job is to work as hard as I can to improve this team and this program every single day. If I do that, I have confidence that positive results will follow.”

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