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Georgetown vs. Syracuse: A fitting end to the rivalry for John Thompson III

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Winning a conference regular season title isn’t something new for Georgetown Coach John Thompson III. In fact, during 13 seasons as a head coach, Thompson has accomplished the feat six times. It’s what he does.

But finishing first in the final regular season of the Big East in its current form is especially sweet for Thompson. And to get what he wanted by routing rival Syracuse on its way out of the conference? Well, that was almost too much good fortune for one coach in a day.

The Hoyas made their leader very happy with a 61-39 blowout victory Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center. By brushing aside the reeling Orange for the second time this season, Thompson checked off one of the most important items on his season to-do list. From an emotional standpoint, nothing means more to him.

As we all know, the Big East was the conference of his father. During his long run at Georgetown, John Thompson Jr., who won the first Big East title, was one of the driving forces behind the conference’s fast rise to national prominence. There are things a son can’t forget.

The younger Thompson’s respect for the league was formed as much around the dinner table throughout his youth as it was from his matching wits against the conference’s other top-notch coaches. Next season, there will be a new Big East, formed around the seven league members that don’t have big-time football programs. Syracuse will move on to the ACC (apparently limping all the way there).

For Thompson, this one was personal.

“It’s special because the Big East as we have known it is ending,” Thompson said of his third Big East regular season championship. “And Georgetown won the first one – and now Georgetown has won the last.”

As if almost on cue, the elder Thompson then barked from the back of the interview room, “And kiss Syracuse goodbye.”

There couldn’t have been a better opponent for Georgetown on Saturday. It was fitting that Thompson wrapped up his part of the family’s bookend championships against the Hoyas’ conference nemesis.

For 30-plus seasons, Georgetown-Syracuse battles provided fans with great displays of high-level college basketball and theater. It was no different this season.

Georgetown’s ascent in the national polls – and its entry into the discussion for a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament – began Feb. 23 after its impressive 57-46 victory over then-No. 8 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. Beginning with that loss to the Hoyas, the Orange dropped four of its final five games.

No matter to Thompson. Beating Syracuse, regardless of the circumstances, is always a good thing. Also, many of the greatest players in Georgetown history – including Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning – were in attendance for the schools’ final Big East matchup.

They came to watch a game and wound up at a party. The celebration included students rushing the court and Thompson holding the Big East title trophy.

It’s a scene Thompson envisioned for a long time.

“When last year ended, I told this group we expected to win the regular season Big East championship this year,” Thompson recalled. “And when the school year started, I told them again. When we were 0-2, I told ’em again. And they listened.”

Few outside of the program had much confidence in the Hoyas, who were ranked fifth in Big East’s preseason poll, emerging as one of the conference’s elite teams.

Early on, Georgetown was a mess on offense. During their shaky start, the Hoyas twice scored fewer than 50 points in losing to Marquette and Pittsburgh.

Then the Greg Whittington situation seemed to be a potential season-killer.

Whittington, the Hoyas’ second-leading scorer and rebounder, was declared academically ineligible in January. Forget about winning the Big East. Without the athletic Whittington, Georgetown had to remake itself just to become competitive.

Thompson altered the way Georgetown played. He went with smaller lineups. He changed roles. His ability to guide the Hoyas around their biggest obstacle is among the many reasons why he should win his first Big East coach-of-the-year award.

Everyone knows that Otto Porter is the Big East’s top player. Porter proved it again with Saturday’s steady 10-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist performance.

“Porter is, hands down, the player of the year in the league,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. “To me, this kid is the player of the year in the country. I don’t see it being close. I really don’t.”

Thompson has done a lot to help Porter shine. The shooting of guard Markel Starks (19 points) and D’Vaun Smith-Rivera (15 points) also has been important. Thompson puts Porter, Starks and Smith-Rivera in position to succeed. He restructured the offense for it to work best without Whittington on the floor.

That was some darn good coaching.

“He’s done and unbelievable job,” Boeheim said of Thompson. “They’re a lot better than people ever thought they would be. This is a very good basketball team. When those guards shoot like that they can beat anybody.”

The Hoyas still have many goals. They’ve shifted their focus to winning next week’s Big East tournament title. They’re determined to enhance their résumé in hopes of earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. “I’m not saying we’ve accomplished our goals by any stretch of the imagination,” Thompson said.

They already attained a big one, though. In the process, they gave Thompson something he always wanted: a great closing finish to his dad’s historic opening act.

For more by Jason Reid, go to www.washingtonpost.com/reid.

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