After John Thompson III and the Hoyas beat North Carolina in 2007 to advance to their first Final Four in over 20 years, it would have been hard to believe that a few years later, his resumé would be called into question. Georgetown fell to Ohio State in the national semifinals, but their run was a thrilling and unexpected sign of progress.
Thompson had revitalized the Georgetown basketball legacy and the school would be forever grateful. Restoring the team to glory so soon after dwindling into irrelevance under Craig Esherick, who managed just one NCAA tournament appearance in five years, had seemed a mountainous task.
But in the five years since that Elite Eight victory, JTIII’s Hoyas have managed just one tournament win, causing significant factions in the Georgetown community to question Thompson’s leadership of the program. The Hoyas expect to perennially compete at the top of the Big East and make noise during March Madness, but consecutive season ending losses to programs like Davidson, Baylor, Ohio, and VCU were a far cry from the madness that fans were looking for.
It’s not just the persistence of these early postseason exits that has fans frustrated. Thompson’s trademark interpretation of the Princeton offense facilitates beautifully smooth and fundamental basketball when it’s working well. It can be excruciating to watch at times, however, and the Hoyas rarely come prepared to make adjustments. Its inherent lack of urgency can cause the offense to fall stagnant, a major concern if they fall behind early, as they did last season against VCU.
JTIII loyalists will point to the Hoyas’ astounding field goal percentages during his tenure (occasionally tops in the nation) as evidence for the offense’s effectiveness. Yet, something from the regular season has failed to translate to elimination games, where the Hoyas seem less methodical and focused yet still cling to their traditional motion and back-door cuts. The advantage of the Princeton offense is that it’s crisp and involves all five players on the offensive end, but at times, the Hoyas manage to turn it into a sloppy demonstration of how to lose big games.
Perhaps Thompson’s greatest ally in his battle with critics is his recruiting record, but this too requires further examination. While he has annually attracted freshman classes worthy of national acclaim, he has failed to translate that talent into success on the court.
His 2007 Final Four came on the coattails of future NBA players Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, a pair of Esherick recruits. Meanwhile, he has failed to retain crucial pieces of his squad from year to year, breaking with the Georgetown tradition of a four-year commitment to the Hoyas. The ‘07-’08 squad would have been likely title favorites had Green not departed after his junior season. The same is true to a lesser extent of DaJuan Summers and Greg Monroe, who both left highly talented teams with years of eligibility remaining.
The Hoyas have been losing more than just stars, however, with useful role players like forward Vernon Macklin and guard Jeremiah Rivers transferring from Georgetown in search of something more. This summer alone, the Hoyas parted ways with rising juniors Vee Sanford and Jerrelle Benimon, forcing the incoming freshmen to have an immediate impact if the thin Hoyas’ squad is to get any production from the bench. Persistently losing vital squad players to transfers subtracts from the team’s depth and experience, resulting in their unimpressive performances late in seasons.
Nevertheless, now is certainly not the time to lose faith in JTIII. To doubt the coach in this critical rebuilding period only diminishes his ability to retool the squad for future success. If nothing else, Thompson has provided stability to a program that looked to be fading into oblivion under his predecessor, restoring prestige to the Georgetown name and establishing an effective pipeline for some of the nation’s best high school players.
However, only NCAA Tournament victories will silence the critics. As the years go by, 2007 becomes increasingly less relevant. The clock is ticking for both Thompson and the Hoyas to get things right.