John Thompson III has Georgetown Hoyas on an early-season roll


Georgetown forward Otto Porter lets out a yell as he jams home a late dunk against Howard this month. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)
Jason Reid
Columnist December 16, 2011

Coach John Thompson III’s early roll continues with each surprising Georgetown victory. The Hoyas’ top man is accomplishing the unexpected. If Thompson can keep this up all season, it could rank as his best.

At the moment, there’s just no other way to view Georgetown’s results. Thompson’s mostly inexperienced team isn’t supposed to be this effective — definitely not 8-1 good after key players from last season moved on — but it’s apparently ignorant to that fact.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

And Thompson is encouraging the group’s stunning lack of self-awareness. He has actually convinced the No. 16 Hoyas that they’re capable of becoming even better, figuring he has the type of hard-working players who would embrace such a message.

They bonded quickly after their international incident in China in August and have fought together well since, displaying the signature defense and toughness for which Georgetown is known. After losing a bit of their identity over the years, these Hoyas just may be capable of restoring the old swagger.

Obviously, the luster of Georgetown’s fast start would fade quickly if it fails in the brutal, second-to-none Big East conference. Also, the Hoyas haven’t had much fun in the NCAA tournament recently, and March’s spotlight still matters most.

But given where Georgetown — which hosts American University on Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center — currently stands, it’s enjoying a much brighter beginning than college basketball observers envisioned.

Winner of six in a row, Georgetown has impressive nonconference victories over Memphis, ranked eighth when the teams played in November, and then-No. 12 Alabama.

The Hoyas’ only loss was by four points to Kansas, currently ranked No. 12, in the first round of the Maui Invitational.

Although Georgetown made too few plays down the stretch to beat the loaded Jayhawks, its overall performance was a good initial step for a team starting over without two-time leading scorer Austin Freeman and point guard Chris Wright.

In outlasting Memphis in overtime later in Hawaii, the Hoyas showed improvement. They’ll get the chance to double down on Memphis on Thursday at Verizon.

The nonconference portion of Georgetown’s résumé is a good read and could be great with a second victory against Memphis, “and that’s really the reason you’re writing this,” Thompson said during a recent phone interview. “No one had any expectations of us going into this year.”

Well, yeah.

Except Thompson did.

Privately, he sensed the group would surprise. He liked the squad’s collective personality. Thompson simply thought he had more with which to work than the so-called experts realized.

“I didn’t know when it would happen,” Thompson said of Georgetown’s development. “I just said to myself, ‘One day [this season], I think we’re gonna be a very good team.’ I believed that.

“The kids have a strong work ethic. They care about what we’re doing and they believe in what we’re doing. Coupled with their talent, I thought all of that would let us get there. That would be what did it.”

There were some known quantities.

After joining Freeman and Wright in a highly effective three-guard lineup, senior Jason Clark is comfortable as the focal point of the offense, averaging a team-leading 16.2 points. He’s shooting 41.7 percent on three-pointers.

Increased responsibility has inspired junior forward Hollis Thompson, who has made 52.6 percent of his three-pointers and is second in scoring at 14.7 points. Senior center Henry Sims (12.1 points) also has been a steadying influence, “and the thing that Jason, Henry and Hollis bring to the table is that they understand it’s a long year . . . in terms of having success,” Thompson said. “It’s still so early.

“We haven’t even started conference play yet — and there’s no conference like our conference. What we have to do is make sure our young guys understand that we’re putting a premium on we can improve. Jason, Henry and Hollis help with that.”

Thompson has leaned heavily on the team’s leaders since the Hoyas began practicing for their goodwill trip to China, which was marked by a benches-clearing melee during an exhibition game against a Chinese professional club.

For the players, it was a unique bonding event.

“No doubt about that,” Thompson said. “The experience definitely impressed upon the guys that we’re in this together. It showed them that we literally will have to fight through some situations sometimes to have success this year.”

In practice before the China trip, freshman forward Otto Porter (8.7 points, team-best 5.7 rebounds) began to emerge. He’s still coming fast.

“He’s the most prepared freshman I have coached,” Thompson said. “He has a tremendous understanding of how you have to compete at this level and of selflessness and team. . . . He’s heading toward having a special career here.”

The Hoyas begin Big East play Dec. 28 at Louisville. Their performance in the nation’s top men’s basketball conference, in large part, will determine how they’re ultimately viewed.

Since making its Final Four run in 2007, Georgetown has advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament only once. So there’s that.

“We still have to get better . . . I think this team understands that,” Thompson said. “We’re a team of workers. We have a team that, collectively, is not going to be content.”

That much is clear. These Hoyas are fighters.

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