Georgetown broke into the national rankings this week and girded for a visit from Tennessee as part of the SEC-Big East Challenge. But the subject and subtext of virtually every question put to Hoyas Coach John Thompson III and his starters on the eve of Friday’s game at Verizon Center was the latest blow to the Big East: Louisville’s decision to join Syracuse and Pittsburgh in bolting for the ACC.
“Change,” Thompson said, distilling his reaction to Wednesday’s news to a single word. “Intercollegiate athletics is going through a transformation and evolution, and we’re not close to being done. This is the next part of it.”
At 46, Thompson is old enough to remember when Big East schools represented the pinnacle of college basketball. Age aside, he has plenty of reason: His father coached Georgetown to the 1984 NCAA championship. The next year, three Big East schools — Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s — accounted for three of the teams in the Final Four.
The latter fact came as a revelation to Georgetown junior guard Markel Starks, who first read of the achievement in Friday’s Washington Post. A self-described “Hoya from birth,” Starks said the Big East’s 1985 Final Four feat only confirmed what had always been clear in his home.
“Obviously Big East basketball is, in my opinion, one of the most competitive conferences in the country,” said Starks, who leads the No. 20 Hoyas (4-1) with 14 points per game. “Of course I was a little bit young during the [first] John Thompson era. But I had parents that lived in the John Thompson era, and that was instilled in our home: Georgetown basketball means going out, competing hard every day and playing hard. The Big East, too. That’s what the university is about: Giving it your best effort.”
Louisville became the seventh team to announce plans to leave the Big East in the last year, all of them wooed away by leagues coveting their football followings and television markets. And for the most part, each stab Big East officials have made at replenishing their ranks has either strained geographical logic, diluted the brand or both.
Largely lost amid the shuffling and reshuffling have been the Big East members that don’t compete in big-time football — Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova, DePaul and Marquette. In a new world order predicated on football revenue generated by top-level programs, they’re viewed as bringing little to the table and, as a result, have been buffeted like rudderless ships in the wake of decisions in which they have no clout.
That has led some to conclude that the smartest play for Georgetown and its basketball-centric Big East brethren is to break away and form its own league — one that harkens back to the league’s original identity as an urban basketball conference.
Asked Thursday whether he felt such a move would benefit Georgetown, Thompson demurred.
“I think that’s a question that probably is best answered not by John Thompson right now,” Thompson said. “I think our president is involved in all that, and I would not want to comment in any way that he would not want me to comment.”
The coach went on to note that Georgetown basketball was strong before the Big East was founded, has remained strong throughout the league’s 34-year history and would continue to be strong in the future.
“I’m not a fortune teller, but I know that we’ll be good,” Thompson said. “It’s important stuff that’s going on. But you can become so engrossed with that, that you really do forget about Tennessee. And so if you spend X amount of hours over the last 24, 48 hours focusing on conference issues, you forget about the fact that [Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes, who’s averaging a team-high 15.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game] is pretty darn good, and we’re going to have our hands full trying to stop him.”