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March 30, 2007

Hoyas thriving under the new Thompson way

The Georgetown program hit a new low three years ago. The Hoyas suffered their second losing season in just 31 years. It was the third consecutive year the once dominant program failed to reach the NCAA Tournament.

They turned to the son and namesake of legendary coach John Thompson, who started the rebuilding project by installing the Princeton-style offense.

Critics immediately questioned the move.

They said an offense from the Ivy League wouldn't work in the Big East. They said big-time recruits wouldn't make backdoor cuts. They said athletes wouldn't thrive in so much structure.

John Thompson III never doubted.

"I never thought that was true," said Thompson, who played at Princeton and coached there for nine years before taking over the reins at Georgetown. "You just have to look around and see the influence (former Princeton) Coach (Pete) Carill had when he went to the pros. Look at all the different pro teams that are running bits and pieces or some semblance of what we do here. If it works there, it can work anywhere."

Three years later, Thompson III has all the proof he needs. The Hoyas are back in the Final Four for the first time since 1985. They might have done it sooner if not for running into defending national champ Florida in the Sweet Sixteen last season (the Hoyas were the only team to give the Gators a scare in last year's tourney, falling 57-53).

Much of the credit must go to that slow, methodical offense that Thompson III insisted he implement. The system has created remarkable balance and unselfishness, making it extremely difficult for defenses to know who will be taking the shot on any given trip down court.

The five starters are averaging between 11 and 15 points a game in the NCAA Tournament. None is taking more than 11 shots a game, and each is averaging at least two assists a game.

Three starters 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert, Big East Player of the Year Jeff Green and lead guard Jonathan Wallace are shooting 53 percent or better from the field in the tourney. As a team, the Hoyas are shooting 50.2 percent (114-of-227), making them one of just four squads to convert over half of their field-goal attempts (Florida leads the way at 52.8 percent).

Thompson III and his staff have also proven to be great talent evaluators. Neither the versatile Green, whom Thompson III calls "the smartest player I've ever coached," nor Hibbert, who like Green is from the metro D.C. area, was highly ranked coming out of high school. Both are now projected as first-round NBA draft picks.

Thompson III won't be taking credit for Wallace, who hit the clutch 3-pointer to force overtime against North Carolina in the East Regional final. If the Hoyas found any luck on the recruiting trail it came in the form of the junior from Sparkman, Ala., who began his college career without a scholarship, accepting a walk-on spot with the Hoyas.

"Jeff and Roy are going to get the attention, and they should, but Jon is someone who from his freshman year, someone I recruited and told him you're never going to play, you're never going to play here," Thompson III said. "He started from the day he walked in the door. It's a testament to how tough he is in his upbringing and his belief in what we're doing. He's a kid who gives an honest day's effort every single day."

The type of effort that Wallace and his teammates have consistently shown has also helped to define the Thompson III era at Georgetown, separating it from the overwhelming shadow his father cast.

"Young John is not his dad, and I think that's something that's really strong for him. Young John coaches the way that he feels is best for him," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who was an assistant on the Tar Heels team that beat the elder Thompson and the Hoyas for the 1982 NCAA title. "Toughness is just not hard fouls and being willing to fight people. Toughness is being 10 down and continuing to do what your coach wants you to do. Toughness is being like Wallace that got a 3-point shot. If you miss that shot, you're probably not gonna win the game, but he was tough enough to step up and make that shot.

"So young John is gonna have a wonderful career, and he's gonna coach his way. He's gonna coach his team the way that he is comfortable with. I've never asked this, but I would bet his dad is extremely proud because he's coaching it the way he wants to coach it. He's not trying to be big John."

After seeing the kind of results Thompson III and the Princeton offense have produced, even longtime Hoyas fans are glad that is the case.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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