By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
This week, it will be tempting to compare the current Georgetown Hoyas with the teams that went to the Final Four in '82, '84 and '85. Don't do it: There is no comparison. The old Hoyas were a great dynasty. The new Hoyas are a greater story.
If you want to do an injustice to both the past and the present, if you want to overburden the current Hoyas with unfair expectations, if you want to confuse a rising reborn program with a full-blown powerhouse in its prime, then try to fit the current team under the same tent as those '80s monsters. Just because people named John Thompson and Patrick Ewing were part of both trips to the Big Dance, don't confuse the two eras. Each deserves to retain its uniqueness.
This is simple. But it will probably get confused by the time Georgetown meets Ohio State on Saturday in the national semifinals. This season's Hoyas, despite their towering front line, are considered underdogs in Atlanta. Georgetown may win it all, but Florida is the defending national champion with its entire starting team back. And Ohio State finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country.
If only Georgetown could play with some other name on its jersey -- George Washington or George Mason or any George but "town" -- they would be seen more clearly and appreciated more fully. These Hoyas are an extremely improbable team that's been rebuilt from ashes in just three seasons by Thompson's son. By the time "J.T. III" arrived, the Hoyas had won just 11 NCAA tournament games in the previous 15 years and, despite a fistful of gift victories every year against patsy teams, GU had only one 20-win season in the previous seven years. That's not a dead program, but it's definitely on life support.
Yet Thompson built his new foundation with two players, Roy Hibbert and Jonathan Wallace, who were so futile or obscure in high school that almost nobody wanted to recruit them. The team's fans love to bellow, "We are . . . Georgetown," invoking the glory days. But there's another side to this hoop reality. Georgetown is only six deep in truly trusted talent. And, let's be honest, how did they survive the East Region? Only a blown call in the last seconds saved them from defeat against Vanderbilt. And a nervous breakdown by North Carolina's freshman guards helped them turn an 11-point deficit into an overtime win Sunday. They call themselves "Hoyas," but there's plenty of "Hilltop Hoosiers" in their hearts.
Perhaps contrasts, not comparisons, are what really do justice to this Georgetown team. The old Hoyas were a basketball mansion that took John Thompson Jr. 10 years to complete. Patrick Ewing Sr. was his capstone. But the rest of those lineups were stacked, halfway down the bench, with pre-NBA hunks. Fans may have forgotten how dominant those GU teams were.
In '82, '84 and '85, they won a combined nine games in the Big East tournament by an average of 15.4 points. Nobody could even keep pace with the racehorse Hoyas as they peaked. In six NCAA region games in those years, the Hoyas won by an average of 14.3 points and never by less than six points. Nobody had to miss a traveling call in the final seconds to keep their season alive. Each time, they stormed into the Final Four after face-planting foes.
Ewing, Eric "Sleepy" Floyd, Reggie Williams and David Wingate had long NBA careers. But other NBA draftees who played on GU's Final Four teams included Michael Jackson, Bill Martin, Ralph Dalton, Fred Brown, Gene Smith, Eric Smith and Ed Spriggs. Go on, say it: "But they couldn't beat Villanova."
By comparison, the new Hoyas are a fixer-upper, a family estate suffering from nearly 15 years of increasing disrepair. Yet J.T. III has somehow hammered it back into shape in three seasons. After his dad got the moribund program up to 18-10 in '75, Pops needed seven more years to reach the Final Four. That's normal. What's freakish is that Thompson's kid produced a winner in his first year, a round of 16 appearance in his second and a Final Four berth in his third. If his name were "Smith," his nickname already would be "Dean."
Instead of gathering credit to themselves, Thompson and his players deflect credit to the patriarchs, especially Big John. Of course, that's not by accident. Nothing in the Georgetown program ever is. Letting the Hall of Fame father do lots of the talking is just more world-wary Hoya strategy. The less known the savvy son and his coaching tactics are, the less vulnerable he is. So, Big John lurks near his son's interviews. He ought to hold a sign: "Ignore my son. He's boring. Good quotes here."
The more J.T. III stays off the radar screen and the more Big John hogs the mike, the more serious we know Georgetown is about its chances in Atlanta. And those chances have kept improving throughout this month. Every week, from their Big East tournament title to their second-half comeback in the second round against Boston College to their cutting of the nets in the East Region, the Hoyas have continued to find different ways to win -- with a variety of stars and styles. Every starter, including freshman DaJuan Summers, as well as sixth-man Ewing Jr., has now played a crucial role in a game that might have been lost.
Every time that happens, the chances of it happening again, for even higher stakes, improve. At this time of year, championship teams turn into themselves before our admiring eyes. In the beginning, they have a chance to do remarkable deeds. But no one, including the players themselves, knows whether they can. Gradually -- by skill, will and (yes) luck -- the doors of a title run swing open before them, heroes emerge and the momentum shifts their way. Suddenly, what once seemed merely possible becomes palpable. In the final stages, as hope hardens into conviction, what were once thought to be a team's weaknesses prove that they have become strengths. Then, you're dangerous.
On Sunday, Georgetown may have become lethal. The Hoyas' guards, supposedly the team's relative weak link, were the key to their win over top-seeded North Carolina. Wallace, who always hears that he's not quite athletic enough to match up with elite guards, and sophomore Jessie Sapp dominated the Tar Heels' touted but rattled freshmen Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. Wallace and Sapp combined for 34 points on 12-of-21 shooting with 15 assists, 7 rebounds and only 3 turnovers. Lawson and Ellington crumbled with five points each on 4-for-20 shooting with six assists and six turnovers.
Carolina missed 23 of its last 25 shots because its guards lost their poise, repeatedly jacked up long shots and failed to pass the ball inside. Ellington's miss on a wide-open jump shot to win the game in regulation was merely symptomatic.
Georgetown's guards might now blend back into the scenery, deferring to Jeff Green and the rest of the tall Hoya front court. But they've shown opponents, and themselves, what they can do. And Ohio State's most conspicuous problem, aside from foul trouble for 7-foot Greg Oden, has been the out-of-control play by its freshman guards, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook.
Long ago, Georgetown was expected to rule the Final Four. Twice, that backfired. Now, such pressure is no longer appropriate. Though the proud name "Georgetown" on their chests may disguise the truth, these Hoyas are an underdog team. Just three years ago, Thompson took over a program so demoralized the Hoyas were barely one step higher in the hierarchy than the school he left, Princeton. Some said he was crazy to come home to the District.
Now, the son needs two wins to equal his father's total of national titles in 23 years. Then, let the comparisons begin.