- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Beyond the outcome of Georgetown’s Sweet 16 showdown on Friday, past the buzz of anticipation and sense of accomplishment, there lies a future seemingly brighter than the present.

Just two years ago the Hoyas found themselves languishing under the weight of their own tradition. But the program now appears in full ascent.

“The sky’s the limit,” sophomore center Roy Hibbert said.

Since coach John Thompson III replaced Craig Esherick after the 13-15 debacle of 2003-04, Georgetown has gone 19-13 and 23-9 (so far), respectively. On Sunday, the Hoyas — playing in their first NCAA tournament since 2001 — beat Ohio State to earn a berth in the Sweet 16 against Florida in Minneapolis. The last regional semifinal appearance proved an aberration, but this year’s success should be the rule, not the exception.

Not only has Thompson produced results that came quicker than many expected, he has laid a foundation designed to support a program over the long haul.

“We’re still in the process of putting a program together,” Thompson said. “We still are not where I want to be or where we’re gonna be. We’re enjoying this and this is good. But it’s a process. And it takes time to get the program how you want it on the floor, off the floor and everything that entails. We’re not where we’re gonna be yet.”

Thompson starts three sophomores. An improving front line that includes the 7-foot-2 Hibbert, a blossoming talent, and 6-9 forward Jeff Green, the team’s leading scorer who should improve next year. Patrick Ewing Jr., the 6-foot-8 son of the Hoyas’ legendary center, will be eligible after transferring from Indiana.

And many deem the incoming recruiting class, stocked with players who committed early, Georgetown’s best in years.

Among the newcomers are Vernon Macklin, a 6-9 forward from Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., and a McDonald’s All-American; DaJuan Summers, a guard from the McDonogh School in Baltimore, whom many consider to be the best senior in Maryland; and Jeremiah Rivers, a point guard from Florida who is well-versed in Thompson’s intricate “Princeton” offense.

Rivers carries a strong pedigree, as well. He is the son of Boston Celtics coach and former NBA player Doc Rivers.

“You don’t want to look ahead to next year, but the freshmen that are coming in, the hype is there,” said sophomore Jonathan Wallace, who figures to share playing time with Rivers. “And they’re good players.”

Thompson not only has a head start on next season, he already has locked up Austin Freeman, who is just a junior at DeMatha. He might be the best player in the D.C. area right now.

Such a recruiting coup carries additional significance. Freeman is the first Georgetown recruit to come from the storied DeMatha program since the 1980s, signaling a potential re-opening of a talent pipeline. Freeman picked the Hoyas over Maryland, citing the amount of attention paid to him by Thompson, who is considered a relentless recruiter.

In less than two years, Thompson has resolved any issues about coaching in the shadow of his famous father (Esherick never could escape the looming presence of Big John). He preaches and teaches relentless defense to go with the Princeton offense, which is characterized by constant moving and cutting, precise passing and spreading the ball, and the scoring, around.

Conventional wisdom dictates that today’s youth are too self-obsessed and individualistic to buy into such a philosophy. But maybe kids value winning more than it is presumed. Besides, in using the Detroit Pistons as Exhibit A, Thompson emphasizes that the best way to make it to the NBA is to grasp the team concept.

“When he came in, he instilled in us how successful his offense was [at Princeton], and we saw how much success he had with it,” said senior guard Ashanti Cook, a holdover from the Esherick days. “He broke it down for us and told us, if you guys just work hard, you’ll be in the position that you’re in right now. We bought into that when he first came in and now we’re having success.”

Cook, who is from Los Angeles, traveled from 3,000 miles away and a whole different culture in search of the Georgetown of old. He was asked if this year brought him any closer to his destination.

“This is what I expected it to be when I first came,” he said. “We had some tough breaks, but I stayed with it. I kept working hard and right now, I’m enjoying every moment of it. We’re having fun.”

More fun lies ahead.

“It seems like the sky’s the limit pretty much,” said Cook, echoing his teammate, Hibbert, and probably a few others, too.

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