Georgetown-Syracuse: A rivalry for the ages, and a new generation

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010; D01

John Thompson III recalls sitting at the family dinner table and listening to the radio broadcast as Georgetown mounted the furious comeback that toppled second-ranked Syracuse, 52-50, nearly 30 years ago.

Just as vivid are his father's notorious words that touched off the rivalry that has raged since.

Grabbing a microphone, Coach John Thompson declared after his Hoyas snapped Syracuse's 57-game home winning streak: "Manley Field House is officially closed."

It was a final indignity on a night Syracuse had billed as a glorious farewell to its venerable gym before moving into the Carrier Dome. And in the view of the longtime coach's son, now 43, it was possibly the most memorable moment of a memorable clash.

No one needs to explain to members of Georgetown's current team what's at stake Monday when the Hoyas travel to the Carrier Dome for the next installment of a rivalry that pre-dates their births. Four of the Hoyas' starters are Washington area natives and, as a result, well versed in the Big East's defining grudge match.

"It's evident," says junior guard Chris Wright, who is from Bowie. "The battle we're going to be in Monday is something that's been happening for a long time. We all understand that. And we have to understand that we're carrying on a tradition, and we have to honor that and play our hearts out for that game."

Georgetown undergraduates understand it, too, adopting an enmity toward all things Orange as a rite of orientation on the Hilltop. But for those still tweaking their game face, the Web site offered advice this week on insults that might be hurled by Hoyas fans attending Monday's game. Among the tactics suggested: Stressing the superiority of a Georgetown education and harping on the dreariness of Syracuse's climate.

But all the razzing is sure to be drowned out by the orange-clad throng at the Carrier Dome, which is expected to top 30,000 for one of the more anticipated confrontations in the wildly competitive Big East.

Syracuse (19-1, 6-1) is reveling in success few anticipated after losing its top three scorers (Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris) from last season's 28-10 squad. With junior transfer Wes Johnson leading the high-octane offense (Johnson averages 17.3 of the team's 84.1 points per game), Syracuse has climbed to No. 5 in the nation and, in the view of ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, represents Coach Jim Boeheim's best chance of reaching the Final Four since the Orange claimed the NCAA title in 2003.

Georgetown (15-3, 6-2) has surprised as well, sloughing off the disappointment of last season's 16-15 campaign to climb as high as 11th in the rankings. Now 12th, the Hoyas made a strong case for a spot among the top 10 by toppling ninth-ranked Pittsburgh on the road last week.

For Thompson, there is a personal mark at stake Monday, too. With a win, he'd collect the 200th victory of his coaching career. That's still well shy of Boeheim's 818 -- all earned at Syracuse, his alma mater, where he has been head coach since 1976.

Asked if he viewed Boeheim, 65, as a rival of his father's or of his own, Thompson demurred. "Maybe I'm a little twisted," Thompson said, "because right now I've got [15] rivals in Big East play. He's the next one."

In the rivalry's most heated era, neither Boeheim nor John Thompson so carefully calibrated his emotions.

During a rant that followed Georgetown's overtime win in the 1984 Big East tournament, in which Pearl Washington and Patrick Ewing each scored 27 points, Boeheim famously knocked over a chair and barked, "The best team did not win tonight!"

In a Carrier Dome showdown that went Syracuse's way six seasons later, Thompson was ejected for only the third time in his career.

According to Boeheim, the mere presence of Coach Thompson on the Carrier Dome sideline seemed to fuel Orange passion.

"John Thompson the second, I believe, was such an enormous part of that rivalry," Boeheim said recently. "I think he liked coming here, and the fans loved to see him come here."

But more significant, Boeheim said, was the sheer number of riveting games between the schools.

"Great games make great rivalries," Boeheim said. "You can't structure that, you can't schedule it. It just has to happen. And we've had so many great games over the last years, including last year."

Thompson III agrees, noting that the rivalry matters "because of not just the players -- the Pearl Washingtons, the Sherman Douglases, the Patrick Ewings -- and not just Coach Boeheim and Coach Thompson -- but because of the important games. The significant games. The game that meant advancing or not advancing. The games that meant championship or not championship. That's what makes up a rivalry."

While Georgetown easily handled Syracuse at Verizon Center last January, the Hoyas were forced to overtime in the Feb. 14 game at the Carrier Dome and lost a thriller, 98-94.

Wright led Georgetown with 25 points but says all he remembers is that the Hoyas lost.

Monday brings an opportunity to even the score.

While Thompson III stresses that no Big East game is more significant than another, his players haven't entirely embraced the lesson when Syracuse is involved.

Sophomore center Greg Monroe says flatly that there's nothing like walking on to the floor at the Carrier Dome, with Syracuse fans drenched in bright orange from courtside seats to the rafters. And while Syracuse's students easily overwhelm Georgetown boosters in the heckling contest, there's little trash-talk among the players.

"Our team doesn't talk, their team doesn't talk," Monroe says. "It's not about that. Everybody is competing and giving their all. . . . It's Georgetown-Syracuse. Nothing more to say. You always have a little extra you're playing for, when you're playing them."

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