We might be seeing the finest coaching performance of John Thompson III’s career. It’s still January, of course, but not many folks would have had the Hoyas at 13-1, undefeated in three conference games and on an 11-game winning streak after Wednesday night’s comeback victory over No. 20 Marquette.
JTIII obviously is no slouch on the bench; he took the Hoyas to the Final Four in 2007, but he had Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert and a strong supporting cast. Since then, Georgetown lost in the second round in 2008, missed the tournament entirely in 2009 and was upset in the first round each of the past two years.
This year, Thompson and the Hoyas were not burdened by expectations. Last season’s seniors — Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Julian Vaughn — are no longer around. This season’s roster has two seniors, one junior, four sophomores and five freshmen, which might explain why the Big East preseason coaches poll had Georgetown picked to finish 10th in the conference. Instead, the Hoyas are ranked ninth in the Associated Press poll, ahead of the only team to beat them (Kansas, early in the season in the Maui tournament).
Thompson is getting the most out of his few veterans. Jason Clark leads the team in scoring (15.9 points per game), including a game-high 26 against Marquette, which led by 17 in the second half before the Hoyas stormed back. That rally was due in part to junior Hollis Thompson (13.9 ppg), who hit key three-pointers against the Golden Eagles, and senior Henry Sims, the team leader in assists who got the ball where it needed to be in the game’s crucial final minutes.
But the group that shut down Marquette when it could have been building on that 17-point lead was, according to the coach, Clark and a quartet of freshmen: Jabril Trawick, Greg Whittington, Otto Porter and Mikael Hopkins.
“That’s the group that got us jump-started,” he said. “We just guarded. That’s what’s going to win games in this conference. You have to get stops.”
To play really stifling defense requires some bench depth with talent, something the Hoyas lacked last season, when there was a noticeable drop-off after the starting five (although that improved as the season progressed). This season, eight players are averaging double digits in minutes, and everyone on the roster has played some.
Finding a way to blend his veteran leadership with a passel of freshmen is what makes Thompson’s coaching performance this year so impressive. Often, a team with the makeup of the Hoyas jells around the time of the NCAA tournament — or not at all. And then the process begins again the next season.
But Thompson has melded his brood into a team in short order, and in time for the grueling conference season (the Hoyas are one of four Big East teams in the top 11 of the current Associated Press rankings). Can the Hoyas challenge the cream of the league, top-ranked Syracuse and Connecticut? The scheduling gods have been kind: Though four of their next six games are on the road, the Hoyas don’t face either the Orange or the Huskies until next month.
The Georgetown-Connecticut game is on a Wednesday night (Feb. 1) at Verizon Center. If the Hoyas continue on their current run, surely more than 11,213 — the attendance for Wednesday’s victory over Marquette — will show up to see this team, and the coach who put it together.