From the moment he set foot on Georgetown's campus in 2004, John Thompson III was inextricably linked to offense. Not just any offense, but a system that he played under and then orchestrated, a scheme named for its location and synonymous with a prestigious academic reputation: Princeton.
Eight seasons later, Thompson had a team that couldn't score.
In a year that to many represented the demise of college basketball, the Hoyas were the model of offensive futility. Their 37-36 win over Tennessee on Nov. 30 was the second-lowest scoring game of the shot clock era. That they couldn't get over 50 points in their Big East opener at Marquette was alarming, except that they weren't able to do so against Towson either. Entering Friday, Georgetown was ranked 248th in the nation in points scored with 64.9 per game.
|The Thompson File|
|Age » 47|
|Playing career » Princeton 1984-1988|
|Career record » 277-128*|
|Coaching history »|
|Princeton asst. (1995-2000)|
|Princeton (2000-2004) 68-42|
Georgetown (2004-present) 209-86*
But while observers cringed when the Hoyas had the ball, the unshakable Thompson saw a foundation for success at the other end of the floor. Already vindicated by a Big East coach of the year award, he will guide Georgetown into the NCAA tournament on the back of a coaching performance that could permanently separate him from the Princeton label he's carried throughout his career.
"From early on, we knew that we had to defend to win," Thompson said after Georgetown's Big East quarterfinal victory over Cincinnati on Thursday. "Even in those early games, yes, we were not scoring, but we were defending then, and it was hard for the other team to score. As the year has gone on, we have gotten better and a lot of that is we are a young team."
It could also be the right team. The Hoyas were supposed to be rebuilding after losing Greg Monroe to the NBA draft in 2010 and former McDonald's All-Americans Chris Wright and Austin Freeman a year later.
But there was something different about the group that gathered in August of 2011 in preparation for what turned out to be an infamous trip to China. A brawl with the Bayi Rockets made headlines at home, but there was a certain, and more appropriate, fight that the players displayed in practice before they left.
"When we stepped on the court, it was almost like we weren't friends," said former Hoyas guard Jason Clark, a senior on last year's squad. "We were pushing each other, and everybody was jawing. It was all of that, but when we stepped off the court, you could tell everybody knew that we were in this together, and the only reason that we were pushing each other like that was because everybody wanted the same thing. Everybody wanted to win."
Clark, who last year led Georgetown to its first NCAA victory since 2008, saw his workmanlike legacy inherited by Otto Porter Jr., who doesn't crave the attention that comes with being a national player of the year candidate. He prefers simply to win by any means necessary, an attitude that has spread throughout the roster, fostering an environment where toughness is as prized as skill. Thompson has added to that recipe his dose of tactical knowledge and mastery of feel for the game.
It has produced a team that entered Friday ranked seventh nationally in field goal percentage defense (37.7 percent) and eighth in points allowed (55.7 per game). It's a team that won 11 straight Big East games; that earned Thompson his second win at Carrier Dome; that came back from down seven points with two minutes left in double overtime against Connecticut.
"It's all about prodding, poking, kicking, praising, just to try to get the best out of each individual person as well as the group as a whole," Thompson said recently. "But that being said, we do have a group of self-starters."
After last year's NCAA tournament defeat to N.C. State, Thompson said there hadn't been a team he'd enjoyed coaching more. With many of the same players part of a current group molded in his own image, his affinity hasn't waned.
"No doubt. Without a doubt," Thompson said. "You're fortunate enough to go through this year after year, and some years, your team is more on the same page as you than others. I think in most instances, with most things, we are very much aligned on the same page."