The Hoyas' Splendid Identity Crisis

By Mike Wise
Saturday, March 31, 2007

ATLANTA If you had to come up with a slogan for each school this weekend, they might break down accordingly -- Florida: " We're Ba-a-a-a-ck." UCLA: "We're Back, Too, With a Vengeance." Ohio State: "We've Got Greg Oden and You Don't."

And, of course, Georgetown: "Uh, Our Dads Were Really Good."

Having improbably made their way to the Final Four, the Hoyas' present almost is dwarfed by their past. Hours before the university's biggest basketball game in 22 years, Georgetown is viewed nationally as the most image-less team left in the NCAA tournament -- a virtual 12-man identity crisis.

We know their bloodlines, but no one beyond Greater Washington seems to care about their plot lines.

The Gators are Joakim Noah's ponytail flapping downcourt like a spoiler on a souped-up Ferrari. The Buckeyes are the strength of Oden and the swiftness of Mike Conley Jr. The Bruins don't have much of a theme to bank on, either. But at least they have their Velcro defense and the tradition of the most decorated program in college basketball history.

Georgetown is what, exactly?

"We're just a bunch of unselfish guys out there having fun and getting the job done," Patrick Ewing Jr. said.

He's right. Beyond their famous fathers, the Hoyas, who drew far less attention than any other Final Four team during media day at the Georgia Dome on Friday, are that selfless team whose sole intention is to win a national title. Their coach isn't a self-promoter rumored to be taking another job. They don't have a statistically dominant player. And most of their players -- engaging and personable privately -- have been encouraged and coached to be guarded publicly. Georgetown easily is the least sexy team in the Final Four.

Which makes the Hoyas the best story. Their act is that they don't have one. They are what they are, a compilation of some very good players who worked, grew and got better over time.

Jeff Green, who averages 14 points per game, is not among the country's top 50 scorers or rebounders. A smattering of reporters attended his and Jonathan Wallace's news conference Friday. Noah and Oden drew double the crowd. You would have no idea Green was one of the best five players in college basketball, a guy whose ability to harness his talents into a more constrictive system actually broadened his playmaking skills.

Roy Hibbert is a central figure as it relates to his matchup in the middle with Oden. But the 7-foot-2 junior center is the late bloomer, the kid who went from gawky to very good, standing next to the first or second pick in the NBA draft.

The Hoyas' style of play is predicated on an old-fangled concept of actually involving five people in the offense.

In a warped recruiting universe where some coaches sell their programs as one-year apprenticeships for the NBA, the Princeton offense is anathema to the AAU-dominated youth basketball culture. It does not create stars. It is a system of interchangeable parts that creates the sublime choreography of teamwork. You know how many features have been written and produced on the sublime choreography of teamwork? Bud Greenspan won't even touch that one.

The coach is unruffled, unemotional and calculating. He looks and acts as if he should be managing your portfolio. John Thompson III is a serene, thoughtful man who would rather you not peel back the layers of his personality.

His father, John Thompson Jr., went out of his way to create adversarial relationships with members of the media he believed had it out for him and his players. Twenty-odd years ago, Georgetown emerged as black America's team, a badge of racial identification for every teenage African American kid with enough money in his pocket to buy a gray Hoyas jersey.

Today, J.T. III, as my friend Michael Wilbon put it so eloquently in The Post on Friday, does not have to fight those battles because his father fought them for him.

As a result, J.T. III is Thompson Lite. His program is Diet Georgetown.

He facetiously referred to Pete Carril's Princeton sets as the "slow, white guy offense." The inference that people are surprised black players can run such an intelligent offense rankles him.

"When you think of those old Georgetown teams, you thought of hard, edgy guys with an attitude," said Doc Rivers, the father of reserve point guard Jeremiah Rivers and the coach of the Boston Celtics. "These guys, you think of cerebral players with high basketball IQs. The thing is, that's as much of a stereotype as the stereotypes from the 1980s.

"These guys display toughness in a very different way. You don't win that game against North Carolina with the Princeton offense. You win it with mental and physical toughness."

J.T. III said: "You know, the comparisons to Pops's teams, much like the talk about Big Pat, Little Pat, Big John, Little John, you guys can do that. We're here playing, trying to figure out how to win games."

By default the past week, Ewing Jr. has emerged as the voice of the locker room and the face of Georgetown. He's less guarded, more off the cuff and completely uninhibited. After the win over North Carolina, it wasn't Green or Hibbert carrying the East Region championship trophy off the team bus, it was Ewing. His smile and his ability to enjoy the moment are infectious.

When he and his teammates act in concert, it's as if there are five basketballs and one man. Unencumbered by numbers or names, Georgetown is a bunch of Big East kids running an Ivy League offense to precision. It's not Noah's ponytail, Oden's draft status or anything to do with hoop lineage. But it just might be a good enough story to win the national championship.

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