By Mike Wise
Friday, March 23, 2007
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
It's not the recruiting pitch an all-state player wants to hear: "You're not going to be on scholarship and you will never play." But that's exactly how John Thompson III enticed Jonathan Wallace to follow him to Georgetown three years ago: a promise of nothing.
What else was he going to tell Wallace? That a farmer's son from rural Alabama, whom Thompson had originally recruited to play at Princeton, was suddenly starting point guard material for a program hoping to be nationally ranked again?
That a keep-to-himself, Southern kid who grew up on an 80-acre cattle farm would follow in the footsteps of the District's John Duren; the Bronx's Fred Brown; Baltimore's Kevin Braswell; Hampton's Allen Iverson; and every other floor general from a metropolitan area who played right into the mean-mugging Hoya mystique?
That a student government president bound for an Ivy League education was going to stand out athletically in the Big East? To fill the kid's head with those dreams would have been worse than disingenuous; it would be just plain cruel.
"He's started, what, every game since he's been here?" Thompson said, half-smiling, pausing to reconsider his original pitch to Wallace. "In spite of me saying that, I have a lot of confidence in John, and I think he has a lot of confidence in me."
Georgetown meets Vanderbilt in the round of 16 Friday evening, and Thompson wants no one else to be his messenger on the court more than Jonathan Wallace. He is called the most underrated player in the Big East by Marquette assistant Jason Rabadeaux.
"Everybody talks about Jeff [Green] and Roy [Hibbert], but certainly he's the head to that body," Rabadeaux said last week.
When he is asked to compare himself with former Hoyas point guards, Wallace says, straight-up: "Pretty much everybody I know of were inner-city type guys. . . .
"You kind of create your own identity when you come here. But no matter what, once you set foot on the Hilltop, things change. You go into this old phase of Georgetown basketball: You got to play with heart and represent what's on your chest and take it serious."
Every time we hear "Georgetown is back," the people who get nostalgic for such things hearken back to the Hoyas of old and want this current run to resemble all that was good and memorable 20-odd years ago. But Georgetown isn't back. The program merely grew and changed, became contemporary and evolved. Its offense wasn't just predicated on defense anymore. It became more cerebral, laced with intricate patterns and choreography that Thompson borrowed from his college coach and mentor at Princeton, Pete Carril. Its players showed less outward swagger and more inward confidence.
These Hoyas dispel every unfair stereotype about what Big John's teams were and weren't about. They took an Ivy League offense, added isolation plays and post-ups as wrinkles, and made it their own. They win with aggressive defense some nights and patient offense the next. They are that rare college team that can win scraps and scintillating, end-to-end runs. And no one embodies their contrasting style and demeanor to the old Hoyas better than Wallace.
"I don't know about stereotypes, but we have a more meticulous style of offense," he said. "I think being able to play both fast and slow, to play both upbeat and meticulous, it gives us the upper hand on a lot of teams. We're able to change gears to adapt to however the game is. But basketball is basketball. If you have smart players on offense, anyone could run this system."
Wallace said he still gets ribbed about his country 'Bama roots, with teammates first asking him if he ever heard of Metro or a taxi. They ask where Huntsville is and say they didn't know people played basketball in Alabama. "I usually say, 'I'll show you. Watch,' " Wallace said. And when the Hoyas he's tightest with, Green and Tyler Crawford, thought the stories about the farm back home were embellished, Wallace brought them to rural Alabama two summers ago to experience his world.
The memories from that trip still evoke loud laughter in the Hoyas' locker room.
"He had this one scary cow that would just stare at me and Tyler," Green said. "It had a broken horn that was just dangling. That kind of freaked me out a little bit."
Said Crawford, "Me and Jeff were trying to find exits out in case they charged."
"I don't know if they ran, but they were afraid," Wallace said. "They saw animals that big, they automatically thought they were going to be eaten."
Wallace had grown up bailing hay, feeding the herd and working on tractors. It's safe to say he's the only Georgetown point guard in recent memory whose father raised cattle for a living. He's also the only one who turned down Princeton to follow a young coach who had just gotten his first big-time job.
"I trusted in him and he came through," Wallace said of Thompson. "It all worked out."
The first time Green met Wallace, his future teammate was so anonymous, "I thought he was our security guy's cousin because he was standing next to him."
"He looks like the anti-Iverson," Crawford said. "But John has those moves; he just doesn't display them all the time. He uses them when he has to. I call him a diamond in the rough."
With a little polish and a full-ride scholarship, he began to sparkle. Three years ago, the notion of a fading Georgetown being here had about the same probability as Jonathan Wallace being here. Today, the kid with the promise of nothing is two wins away from the Final Four, nearing the precipice of everything. Now that's a recruiting pitch.