- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

John Thompson III will not dance at Friday’s Midnight Madness festivities.

ESPN and a few thousand students will converge on McDonough Gymnasium to watch the Georgetown basketball team christen a new season of hoops on the Hilltop this weekend. But the Hoyas’ sixth-year head man won’t be reprising his Soulja Boy routine.

He knows there’s something contrived about a celebration following a 16-15 campaign that ended in a 4-12 swoon. Sure, it’s fine to herald a fresh start with some carefree fun, but following the only disappointing season of his coaching career, the 43-year-old is more interested in sweat than swagger.

“It was without question the hardest year of my coaching career,” Thompson said this summer. “I’ve never had a team that lost that many games, but it wasn’t just the losses in and of themselves. It’s that we never figured it out as a group. That’s the one thing my teams have always done.”

After beginning the season 12-3 with impressive victories over NCAA tournament teams Maryland, Memphis, Connecticut and Syracuse, Georgetown imploded in the season’s last two months.

The collapse could have been credited to a combination of the team’s youth and the Big East’s unparalleled depth. With eight of the 10 players in the primary rotation freshmen or sophomores, perhaps the team was primed for a meltdown in a league that boasted three eventual NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds (Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Louisville), another Final Four squad (Villanova) and two other seasoned tournament teams (Syracuse and Marquette).

But the Hoyas negotiated the toughest portion of their schedule with relative aplomb while losing to league also-rans Seton Hall, Cincinnati (twice) and St. John’s (twice).

“I think our lack of experience not only hurt us when we were trying to turn things around, I think it hurt us in the way we handled our early season success,” Thompson said. “In some ways, I think the worst thing that happened to us last season was beating Connecticut handily in Hartford. We weren’t ready to deal with that.”

Junior point guard Chris Wright admitted as much this week.

“When we beat Connecticut, emotionally we started thinking that we had arrived, that we were something to be reckoned with,” he said. “You’ve got to come back down to earth.”

As the only upperclassmen on last season’s team, maybe Jessie Sapp and DaJuan Summers should have supplied that message. But Sapp and Summers were the team’s most emotional and volatile players. Both spent their careers following the even-keeled direction of point guard Jonathan Wallace, and neither was prepared nor perhaps capable of assuming a leadership role. As a result, team chemistry eroded from the top down.

“It was tough because me being a freshman you don’t really want to take that role of yelling at people and getting them to do better,” sophomore guard Jason Clark said. “I think it will be a lot easier this season because everybody is looking to be that leader. It’s a lot better than it was. I think [leadership] might have been what was missing more than anything else last year.”

While Thompson admits chemistry was an issue, he doesn’t deny his own measure of culpability.

“It’s on all of us, and that absolutely includes me,” he said. “There’s a whole lot that you can look at from the top on down to the guy who cleans the gym. We can find a reason why all of us could have done something different last year.”

Gone are Sapp and Summers, who left after his junior season for the NBA. Also missing from this season’s mix is highly regarded assistant coach Robert Burke, who was jettisoned at the end of the season. Burke and former American University assistant Mike Brennan (who worked with Thompson at Princeton) essentially swapped places. Thompson’s relationship with Burke extended to their days as teammates at Gonzaga College High School, and their professional split was the last in a season defined by enigmatic collapses.

“Robert Burke is a fantastic basketball coach, but sometimes change is necessary,” Thompson said cryptically.

Georgetown’s most obvious departure from the Thompson norm last season was an inability to deliver in key moments. Georgetown led in the second half or in overtime of nine of its last 10 losses, but time and again the Hoyas found ways to lose.

“That was new for me. My teams have always been terrific in those settings,” Thompson said. “There was no common thread. Experience is a part of that. Trusting in each other and what we’re doing is a part of that. Being lucky as hell sometimes is a part of that. It was a lot of things.”

After six months of agonizing over the whys, Thompson officially shifts his focus to this season’s hows Friday night. Just don’t expect him to do any dancing… at least not until his team learns to strut down the stretch.

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