The conversation went fine until Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said one subject was off limits. Thompson is eager to praise his red-hot team — and he’s actively campaigning for star sophomore forward Otto Porter Jr. to win national player-of-the-year awards — but just don’t shine the spotlight on the Hoyas’ leader. Thompson would rather discuss anything but himself.
“Don’t worry about me,” Thompson said. “I’m really not part of the story.”
On that particular issue, Thompson is dead wrong. Although Porter is carrying the team on the court, Georgetown’s rise to first place in the Big East has been a two-man act. Thompson put Porter in position to succeed and pushed the Hoyas to maintain their focus despite an unexpected obstacle.
Thanks to one of the best coaching performances of his career, Thompson has guided Georgetown from unranked in the preseason all the way to seventh nationally this week. The Hoyas have won nine straight, and if they finish well in their final four regular season games, Thompson could be in line to be the conference’s coach of the year for the first time.
The coach prefers to keep his own profile low, but when you beat the No. 8 team in the country in front of a record crowd in their building, you really can’t stay under the radar. For Thompson and Georgetown, Saturday’s 57-46 victory over Syracuse, which is bolting for the ACC after this season, was about as sweet as it gets at this time of the year. With first place in the conference on the line, the Hoyas once again got behind Porter, who scored a career-high 33 points to silence a crowd covered in orange (where do you even find that much orange-colored stuff?).
Despite the horrendous outing on offense by everyone except Porter, the Hoyas ended the Orange’s home winning streak — the second longest in school history — at 38 games. The accomplishment was as much about Thompson’s ability to develop a winning culture as Porter’s fearless determination in a hostile environment.
The Hoyas didn’t let their failure on offense affect their effort on defense. No matter how many of their shots were off target, they gave it their all on the other end of the court. Ultimately, Porter and strong defense were enough against Syracuse. That’s the formula Georgetown has used throughout its surge in the standings and rankings.
Scoring requires skill. Handling the ball, footwork in the post, shooting — you have to possess tools to succeed at those things. Defense is about commitment.
When teams put as much energy into stopping opponents as Georgetown does, that indicates players are all-in with their coach. Syracuse shot just 34 percent from the field, which isn’t surprising. In the Big East, Georgetown is second in both scoring defense and opponents’ field goal percentage. Those statistics make the usually stoic Thompson light up.
“We’re playing tough, old-school Georgetown defense,” Thompson said, the pride evident in his voice. “From Day One, I knew that that’s what would win games for us [this season], and the kids have committed to the idea. We have to be a very good defensive team for us to win . . . and we have been.”
Problems earlier in the season made the Hoyas even more reliant on defense than Thompson initially envisioned.
Georgetown struggled to score during a confidence-testing 0-2 start in Big East play. Then, second-leading scorer and rebounder Greg Whittington was declared academically ineligible in January. With the loss of the athletically gifted Whittington, Thompson faced one of the biggest challenges in his nine seasons leading the Hoyas.
Like most coaches, Thompson isn’t the type to discuss strategy publicly. It’s clear, however, that Thompson had to make major adjustments without Whittington in the lineup.
On offense, the Hoyas played smaller lineups, tried different combinations and revised roles in attempt to replace Whittington’s scoring. On defense, Thompson emphasized crisper rotations and even more of a team-defense approach without Whittington, who used to cover a lot of ground and clean up teammates’ mistakes.
Also, it’s not just the day-to-day plans that change when a team’s second-best player is out. Coaches make projections about how players will develop throughout the season. Thompson expected Whittington, a sophomore, to improve a lot. With Porter’s production and Whittington’s potential, the Hoyas could have had a powerful 1-2 punch at forward. Instead, Porter usually handles most of the scoring load.
Still, Thompson has made it all work: The Hoyas are 11-1 without Whittington. That’s a great stretch after Georgetown’s shaky conference start and the initial blow of Whittington being ineligible.
“Coach really didn’t give us a choice to use anything as an excuse,” Porter told me recently. “He never talked about anything as . . . being a problem. It was just, ‘Okay, everybody has to do more.’ Everybody understood.”
Being able to reach the entire group has been Thompson’s best feat this season. In his line of work, it doesn’t always happen. After winning two Big East regular season championships, a conference tournament title and making a Final Four appearance, Thompson is putting together a season that could rank as his most satisfying, in part, because of the Hoyas’ togetherness.
“This group is on the same page,” he said. “They’ve done a very good job of caring about and covering for each other. We’ve had to make so many adjustments, so many changes, relative to what we had anticipated. But they’ve stuck together.”
Of course, they’re not finished yet. And with postseason play ahead, a lot of people are going to be talking about not just the Hoyas, but the man who has made sure they’ve stuck together through it all.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.