Smack in the middle of his 13th season as head coach at Georgetown, John Thompson is making a major change in his approach to the game. He hopes it will pay off for his team by the time the NCAA tournament begins in March.
After all those years of relying mostly on patience and patterned ball movement with emphasis on the half-court game, he has decided in recent weeks that the Hoyas will run and use their considerable quickness to play an up-tempo, fast-breaking game.
"We're breaking more than we ever have since I've been at Georgetown," he said. ". . .The seniors have always heard me say, 'Slow down.' Now, I'm saying, 'Let it go. Shoot it, shoot it.' The younger kids probably think this is the way I've always done it. The junior and senior classes are probably still getting adjusted to it."
Late Wednesday night, after his team's victory over Florida Southern, he said that this year's Georgetown team isn't as strong as his team that won the NCAA title last year.
"I started in the middle of this season changing because I realized if we had to stand in and slug it out with somebody we didn't have enough power," he said. "We've got to be quick. We've got to be able to move and run, and that will give the younger big kids more time to develop."
He could have stayed with last year's style of standing in and slugging it out. But he'd have to do it without three of last year's players, 6-foot-9 forward Michael Graham and graduated guards Fred Brown and Gene Smith, who were most effective, by far, in a half-court game of endurance.
But Thompson didn't want to force similar results from this season's inexperienced, younger big men -- freshmen forwards Grady Mateen and Ronnie Highsmith.
"Grady and Ronnie need time to develop, but in the meantime we still have to win," Thompson said. "I can put extra pressure on them and ruin their confidence forever, or we'd have to start running. You either have to be strong or you have to be fast. I think now we have to be quick and fast with what we do."
Getting the knack of the transition game has put the Hoyas in a bit of transition themselves. Turnovers are up; 51 the last two games, including 26 against Division II Florida Southern. But Thompson knows patience has to accompany what he acknowledges are major changes.
"These are major changes, psychologically, the kids knowing that I'm permitting them to shoot quickly off of the break," he said. "Most of my teams expected to slow down, stop and move. We took the break if we had it."
Senior forward Bill Martin confirmed Thompson's remarks. "It's really unusual," he said, "because in the past you'd come down the court and he'd say 'Swing it, swing it. Kick it around and try to get it inside.' Now he's telling us a lot of times if it's a medium-range shot to take it and let the other guys crash the boards.
"He's been saying we may not have the bulk and size that we had last year. So we have to be more like swamp fighters and play that way."
Thompson, asked when he realized quickness was the way to go, said, "I'm not sure that I have yet. I'm just trying to do it and see what happens. I just think some of the younger kids need more time to develop."
When will Georgetown be able to run the new offense to his liking?
"I don't really have a timetable," he said. "I'm sort of waiting for it, hoping we can get something out of our secondary break. We got some things out of it a couple of times (against Florida Southern)."
By no means is Georgetown about to become a run-and-gun outfit, but longtime Hoyas-watchers might find it strange right now to see guards push the ball upcourt so quickly and throw only a pass or two before someone takes a shot.
"When this (first) happens, you tend to shoot the ball too quickly," Thompson said. "But you don't want them to hold back. They have to sense and realize a happy medium.
"I think that they're working at it, but it is an adjustment. We're doing more full-court scrimmaging in practice to get acclimated. We used to practice more in parts. But now I'm letting them go up and down the floor so they can adapt to the tempo we're trying to find."
The breaking offense also could increase the effectiveness of the Hoyas' pressure defense, a switch of the slogan that Georgetown's defense produces its offense.
Running on offense will make opposing defenses have to keep up with such quick players as David Wingate, Reggie Williams, Martin, Horace Broadnax, Michael Jackson and center Patrick Ewing, who gets up and down the court faster than many guards.
Theoretically, Georgetown will make its opponents run on defense (which grows tiring), then make them struggle -- as usual -- against the pressure defense. It could also backfire, by tiring Georgetown's players, but Thompson does not believe that will happen. He knows the Hoyas are among the most physically fit, well-conditioned teams in the country, and he also uses as many as 10 players routinely in a game, allowing him to substitute freely if anyone needs a rest.
"We're turning the ball over an awful lot, but you've got to do it to work it out," he said. "And hopefully, we can work it out by time the tournament comes."