- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

In just one season at Georgetown, John Thompson III has given hope back to the Hilltop.

Though the Hoyas’ season ended Thursday night in a 69-66 NIT quarterfinal loss at South Carolina, there’s no denying the buzz that something special is just beginning at Georgetown.

“That was the best coached team we’ve played all season,” said South Carolina coach Dave Odom after the Gamecocks rallied to trip the Hoyas. “I mean this as no disrespect to the coaches in our league [the Southeastern Conference] or the fine non-conference teams that we played, but Georgetown was the best-prepared, best-schooled, most technically sound team we’ve seen this season. I just can’t tell you how much respect I have for Coach Thompson. He’s doing a phenomenal job.”

While many coaches routinely begin their victorious press conferences with a by-rote plug for the opposing coach and program, Odom’s praise was delivered with a cliche-transcending air of sincerity. He later pulled Thompson aside when the two passed in the bowels of South Carolina’s Colonial Center. And away from the cameras, microphones and (Odom thought) ears of the press, he repeated the same sentiments privately to Thompson.

Such scenes were commonplace this season. Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun used the same adjective as Odom — “phenomenal” — to describe the team’s transformation under Thompson after the Huskies visited MCI Center Jan. 8. After his team escaped Georgetown at the Carrier Dome by the length of Brandon Bowman’s big toe, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim joked, somewhat halfheartedly, that “Big John’s offenses never looked like that.”

Few teams the Hoyas encountered failed to acknowledge the obvious — that the eldest son of the legendary mentor inherited a team that was physically tired and emotionally broken by three seasons of mediocrity under former coach Craig Esherick and restored its belief and confidence en route to a 19-12 debut.

He took a program that was fast becoming a Big East punch line and restored its dignity.

He took a returning group that lost its leading scorer (Gerald Riley) and its primary pivot (Courtland Freeman) and turned the memory of Esherick’s last season (13-15, 4-12 Big East), the program’s worst in 30 years, into just that — a memory.

He handed the ball to a freshman walk-on point guard (Jonathan Wallace), started two other freshmen for the majority of the season (Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert), installed a motion-based Princeton offense predicated on sharing that was completely alien to a roster full of players who had been taught only dribble-drive individuality and still managed to dwarf both expectations and the previous season’s results.

In spite of a preseason poll of Big East coaches that tabbed the Hoyas to finish 11th in the league, Georgetown finished 8-8, deadlocked in the middle of the pack with Elite Eight representative West Virginia.

By most estimates, the Hoyas ended the regular season one win away from an NCAA tournament berth. Much was made of the Hoyas’ five-game swoon at the finish. But the Hoyas were decided underdogs, according to both the pundits and Las Vegas, in three of those five games (at Notre Dame, vs. Villanova and at Connecticut), and they lost to Providence courtesy of foul trouble and an inspired performance by the Friars’ all-conference senior Ryan Gomes.

There’s no excusing the Feb. 20 road loss to a woeful St. John’s squad (76-67). But in reality, that was the team’s only true stinker of the conference season. There’s no denying the Hoyas didn’t close the season like they hoped, but they opened well beyond anyone’s hopes.

And next season, when the Big East adds Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida, Georgetown will enter armed with at least four returning starters (including leading scorer Bowman and leading rebounder and Big East Rookie of the Year Green), its top three reserves, a heralded quartet of freshmen recruits and, most importantly, six more months of soaking in the son.

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