COACH OF THE YEAR | JT III Keeps Stride Despite Challenges
Published: Thursday, May 17, 2012
Updated: Thursday, May 17, 2012 20:05
John Thompson III helms the most scrutinized program in all of Georgetown athletics. At the forefront of many national stories this year, the men’s basketball team achieved surprising success in Thompson III’s eighth season on the Hilltop.
From an international incident in China to upheaval in the Big East conference, from a nationwide recruiting battle for the top high school player to a debate over Georgetown’s plan for the new Athletic Training Facility, Thompson III had a busy year off the court.
“One of those main differences between being a pro coach and a college coach is [that] at the pro level, you just do basketball, and here, probably 80 percent of our job has nothing to do with basketball,” Thompson III said. “Now, that 20 [percent] is really important, but the rest of it comes with helping these guys grow up and deal with life.”
Picked to finish 10th in the Big East by the league’s coaches, the Hoyas finished fourth in the conference that yet again sent the most teams to the NCAA tournament. They earned a No. 3 seed in the Big Dance after winning 24 games and staying in the top 25 from November to the end of the season.
“On most Monday mornings, our fans could feel good about us at the water cooler at work,” Thompson III said.
He did it all with 10 freshmen and sophomores, a junior forward who came within hours of leaving for the NBA draft, a senior center who had never averaged more than three points per game and a streak of three straight NCAA tournament losses creeping into his legacy.
“I think this year’s team — obviously, relative to expectations — accomplished a lot, really understood the notion of team, understood sacrifice,” Thompson III said. “One of the fun parts about my job and probably any coach’s job … [is that] every year, you take a whole new group [and try to] get them to understand commitment … and this group did that pretty quickly, which then allowed us to grow, to get better and to exceed expectations.”
Thompson III’s biggest success may have been the improvement of his two seniors, Henry Sims and captain Jason Clark. Clark, a starter for two years, won the Big East sportsmanship award, while Sims was arguably the nation’s most improved player.
“Conventional wisdom says
that now you’re a senior, now you’re this leader [and] I thought it was important for both of them not to think like that," Thompson III said. "I think the notion of going about your business and other people will see that [work ethic] was important."
In the end, however, Thompson III experienced his fourth tournament defeat by a double-digit seed in the Big Dance’s first weekend, this time in a loss to No. 11-seed N.C. State.
"As a coach, losing hurts. The finality of the last game hurts, and you take a step back and think about the group as a whole. And you say, ‘Ah, I wish this group could have done this differently or that differently.’ But I don’t wish I could have another crack with this group. That’s the beauty of intercollegiate athletics," Thompson III said. "You have a four-year window at most. It’s time for them to move on — Henry, Jason and Hollis — and it’s time for next year’s group to go through that evolution again."
The evolution for this year’s squad started with a brawl. The chair-swinging fight between teams from China and the United States had political implications for Georgetown that extended beyond the hardwood. Thompson III, however, handled the situation deftly, evacuating his players to safety and then healing the conflict with a dose of basketball diplomacy. The teams exchanged gifts at a hotel, and later in the year, Thompson III hosted a team of Chinese high school basketball players.
"I think the China trip was key for the obvious reasons, incident aside. We haven’t taken a foreign trip since I’ve been here, and I realized this past summer was the year to do it," Thompson III said. "Because of the high number of freshmen and sophomores … we needed to hit the ground running, and for them to be able to … understand the concepts enabled us in September to jump right in as if they weren’t six freshmen and four sophomores."
Despite the brawl, the trip also helped foster the commitment Thompson III wanted his players to embrace.
"I think that what that trip allowed us to realize is that when called upon, everyone could contribute. Some years as a coach, you’d love to sit here and say, ‘I have 13 players I can put in the game.’ Well, that’s not always the case if you want to win. But I think this year, we realized we could go a lot of different ways without much slippage," Thompson III said. "And just spending that time together for them to carve their own roles in the locker room was important. The incident, just the whole notion that you realize quite literally you will have to fight for each other to survive … they embraced that notion."
Turning negatives into positives may be the crowning achievement of Thompson III’s year. The China debacle was quickly defused. Big East realignment did not seem to distract the team. Plans for the new Athletic Training Facility are moving forward and may give Thompson III’s program the building it needs to train its elite athletes. And the Hoyas secured 6-foot-11 recruit Bradley Hayes only weeks after Nerlens Noel spurned Georgetown.