Third Year's the Charm?
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
Some college basketball coaches can approach the regular season confident their teams will be invited to the NCAA tournament. John Thompson Jr., who led Georgetown to 14 consecutive NCAA appearances from 1979 to 1992, was one of those coaches. His son, the current Georgetown coach, is not. At least not yet.
"Back in those days, when that's what Pops's preparation was, they knew they were going to the NCAA tournament," John Thompson III said. "That's one of the things where our program still has a long way to go. We are starting year three. I think that gets lost sometimes. We are still in the midst of an evolution, a re-evolution. We're not at the point where all of our conscious decisions are, 'When we get to the tournament, let's make this happen.' We have to get our program to where that is an afterthought. We're not there yet."
But the Hoyas are getting closer. Making the NCAA tournament in consecutive years for the first time since 1997 would represent a step for the program.
Three years ago, when Thompson III took over, Georgetown was coming off a 13-15 season. In his first season, the Hoyas went to the National Invitation Tournament, and then last season, they went 23-10 and advanced to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.
Expectations have soared this season, and the question facing the Hoyas is no longer whether they will make the field of 65, but whether they can earn a top two regional seed. The Hoyas are ranked eighth in the first national poll, their highest preseason ranking since the 1995-96 season, when an Allen Iverson-led team was fifth.
"Coach Thompson expects a lot of us," said 7-foot-2 junior center Roy Hibbert, who was a unanimous pick, along with forward Jeff Green, for the preseason all-Big East team. "From the first year, he was like, 'We can win this.' He doesn't expect us just to make it to the NIT or the NCAA or the Sweet 16. He wants to have a championship banner on his wall."
But first, Georgetown has to navigate a difficult conference schedule. Five Big East teams are ranked in the top 25, and an additional three received votes.
In one seven-day stretch in mid-January, Georgetown will travel to Pittsburgh to face the No. 4 Panthers (Jan. 13) in an arena where they have lost only six times in 70 games; play Rutgers (Jan. 17) at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, where the Hoyas are 3-5 since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big East; and travel to Seton Hall for a rare Friday night game (Jan. 19). Georgetown also has games at Louisville's Freedom Hall (the Cardinals were 19-3 at home in 2005-06) and Syracuse's Carrier Dome (where the Hoyas are 2-8 since 1994).
"You look around this league, and making the Big East tournament is still, you have a checklist and it's still number one," Thompson said. Only the top 12 teams travel to Madison Square Garden for the tournament.
Georgetown was picked to finish second in the Big East preseason coaches' poll largely because of Hibbert and Green. The entire junior class -- which also includes guard Jonathan Wallace, swingman Tyler Crawford and forward Patrick Ewing Jr. -- is one of the Hoyas' strengths.
Thompson often refers to the versatile 6-8 Green as his security blanket, because he feels safe when Green is on the floor. Crawford played only 94 minutes last season, but Thompson calls him the "heart and soul" of the team; he is one of the co-captains along with Green.
This year -- with the graduation of Ashanti Cook, Brandon Bowman, and Darrel Owens (a combined 264 starts over their careers) -- the juniors are the unquestioned leaders of the team. During Thompson's first season, he was fond of saying that the Hoyas had 12 freshmen, because they were all learning something new. Now, the older players can tutor the younger ones, as Hibbert is doing with freshman Vernon Macklin.
"What we do have, going into my third year, is a base," Thompson said. "There is an understanding of what I expect, what is expected individually and from the group."
Interviews with players invariably include references to Thompson's principles, such as the importance of being precise in everything they do, at practice and in games, or the belief that their success is largely contingent on what they do, how they go about their own business.
For instance, over the summer, Hibbert and Green worked as counselors at the Nike all-American Camp alongside Al Horford, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer, three starters on Florida's national championship team. When the Gators talked about their 57-53 win over Georgetown in the Minneapolis region semifinal -- their closest game of the tournament -- they focused on Brewer's twisting shot that put Florida ahead with 27.5 seconds remaining.
If Brewer didn't make that shot, Hibbert recalled the Florida players saying, then everything would have been different. But that's not what Hibbert and Green (who said he was so disappointed by the loss that he didn't watch the rest of the tournament) took away from that game -- a game in which Georgetown built, and lost, a nine-point first-half lead.
"We talk about how it was really us," Hibbert said. "We had a lot of mishaps on the court. There's a lot of stuff we could've done to stop them. Then we wouldn't have been put in that situation where we had a last-second shot. We learned a lesson -- we have to make sure, start to finish, that we do what we're supposed to do."
At Georgetown's media day in mid-October, several players talked about wanting to be the best team in the country. Ewing, who sat out last season after transferring from Indiana, said his goal is to win two national championships in his final two seasons, because that would top his father, who played in three NCAA title games and won one.
"I think most teams go into it feeling that way, wanting to win," Thompson said. "They also realize, and I hope you got that sense from them, that there's a lot of work that goes into it, a lot of commitment, a lot of things have to happen right, fall into line. We do have a lot of holes, a lot of questions that do need to be answered. If everything falls into place, can we possibly be one of those teams? Yeah, I think so."