- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

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The resurrection is complete.

Behind coach John Thompson III and a roster full of familiar names and local talent, Georgetown has bounced back from the edge of basketball oblivion to the Final Four in just three seasons.

“This is a special time,” Thompson said after Georgetown’s 96-84 overtime victory over top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday that put the school in its first Final Four since 1985. “You work so hard, and you have to have so many things fall in place, and you have to be so lucky to get to this point. We feel very fortunate to be headed to the Final Four. And I feel very fortunate to be associated with this group of guys, because they never stopped believing.”

On Sunday, that conviction meant not caving when North Carolina led by 10 with less than seven minutes remaining in regulation. Earlier this season, that conviction meant not wavering after a 4-3 start that included home losses to unranked Old Dominion and Oregon.

And upon Thompson’s arrival in May 2004, that conviction meant embracing a largely unproven coaching commodity whose system was based on sharing and sacrifice rather than showcasing superstars.

Of course, Thompson’s bloodlines and coaching pedigree certainly aided his segue into the once-proud program.

As the eldest son of the local icon who built Georgetown into a power and led the Hoyas to three Final Fours and a national title in the 1980s, nobody questioned Thompson’s basketball genes. And as a star pupil, assistant and eventual successor to Princeton legend Pete Carril, Thompson’s hoops education was equally unassailable.

But when Thompson arrived at Georgetown, the task was every bit as daunting as his background seemed promising. The program steadily eroded under Craig Esherick, the longtime assistant who replaced John Thompson Jr. as coach upon his resignation in 1999. A brief dalliance with excellence yielded a trip to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 in 2001, but the program was in a slump by the time the younger Thompson arrived.

When the team lost nine consecutive games to close the 2004 season and finished with its worst record since the 1972-73 season, students scheduled a rally demanding Esherick’s firing. The administration headed off the embarrassment by dismissing Esherick and hiring Thompson from Princeton.

Positive feedback from the players was almost instant, as were on-court results.

“It was like being reborn,” former forward Brandon Bowman said. 2004 “was very hard and difficult to swallow. Teams looked at you like a joke.”

Thompson’s first team finished 19-13 and reached the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament. The Hoyas took another major step toward the game’s elite level last year by earning the school’s first NCAA berth since 2001 and reaching the Sweet 16, where they lost to eventual national champion Florida.

But the seeds of this season’s greatness were present that first year in a trio of seemingly incongruous freshman.

Roy Hibbert of Adelphi was a gangly 7-foot-2 center Thompson “had to teach how to run.” Jonathan Wallace, a walk-on point guard Thompson was recruiting at Princeton, walked straight off a farm in Harvest, Ala., and into Georgetown’s starting lineup. And then there was Jeff Green, the 6-9 forward from Northwestern High in Hyattsville who somehow slipped under the blue-chip radar but was seen as a future star from the moment he put on a Georgetown jersey.

That nucleus on Sunday combined for 54 points, 23 rebounds, 14 assists and seven blocks while committing just three turnovers.

Georgetown’s renaissance was complete even before the team upset the Tar Heels to earn a Saturday date with Ohio State (34-3) in Atlanta. With a roster that also includes freshman DaJuan Summers, sophomore guard Jessie Sapp and key reserves Patrick Ewing Jr. (the son of the former Georgetown center and NBA great) and Jeremiah Rivers (the son of former NBA star Doc), the Hoyas had already enjoyed a wildly successful season.

Georgetown won its first outright Big East regular season title and first conference tournament championship since 1989 and will arrive in Atlanta the winner of 19 of its past 20 games.

“It’s staggering, quite frankly,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said of Georgetown’s success under Thompson III. “They didn’t look like the same team from the moment he walked in the door. But to go from where they were several years ago at the bottom of our league to sweeping our league titles in three seasons is a remarkable accomplishment. Add in the fact that he’s not running the simplest system in the world and that turnaround is almost astounding.”

The elder Thompson understands the magnitude of his son’s accomplishment. Amid the din at Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey on Sunday, John Thompson Jr. marveled at the moment.

“It makes me extremely proud, because that’s my child out there — first and foremost — and watching him be extremely successful at any endeavor would be very gratifying,” he said. “The fact that it’s in this profession, which I frankly told him to stay away from, and at a place which is special to me, is almost overwhelming.”

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