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The State Of The Hoyas: Thompson vs. Thompson

This is the first in a weekly special exclusive VIP guest column series entitled The State Of The Hoyas.  Enjoy.  

Monday night’s home opener was fun to watch and generally encouraging that there is life after Monroe.   Of course, I was equally optimistic last year by fun to watch and encouraging games like Butler, Washington, UCONN and Duke, though, before  Old Dominion, USF, Rutgers added up to Ohio.  This begs the question - what needs to be different this year to translate promise into greatness?

Watching this team Monday reminds me this is really JT III’s program now.  His first big recruits are seniors and the entire look of the team reflects his philosophy, performance and personality. And no matter where his imposing Dad sits, this is not his father’s team.

In fact father and son could not be further apart in how they approach basketball philosophy – everything from offensive schemes to on the bench demeanor.  To be sure they both played by the rules, demanded excellence and graduated  kids from the program.  But that, and the same last name, is about where the comparison ends.

More Thompson v. Thompson After The Jump:

We’ve had some father-son coaching pairs, Suttons, Knights and Musselmans, where each son always adopted and built on his Dad’s coaching philosophy.  You don’t see Pat Knight playing a lot of zone at Texas Tech for example.  And to wander a bit from basketball, the only person more brash and aggressive than current Jet’s coach Rex Ryan is his Dad Buddy Ryan.

But the Thompsons have very little in common besides being good coaches.  Where JTIII is urbane and smooth and careful with his words, his Dad was the proverbial bull in the china shop.  In both personality and coaching style, they're more like the odd couple than father son.

JTT III has a system that reflects his style.  This week we’re all caught up in the Hoyas being a guard oriented offense.  That misses the point.  His system values mobility, movement and judgment over size and athleticism.  It’s careful, deliberate and usually smart basketball.  It was built for teams that lack great athleticism and has been adapted by JTIII to accommodate some very good athletes. 

John Thompson Jr’s teams were built on something entirely different.  Rather than precision and balance,  Jr’s teams were built on power, speed, physicality and, most of all, intimidation.

The first game I ever saw Georgetown play was in the old Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden in 1977.   This was the premiere tournament in the country before conference play and Georgetown was facing Holy Cross and their All American Ronnie Perry.  Georgetown was led by point guard John Duren and power forward Craig Shelton, both of whom looked like they could play D1 football.  Duren was known for his half court bounce passes, don’t try it – trust me you can’t do it, and Shelton earned his nickname "Sky" every night.

The Hoyas didn’t just beat the Crusaders that night in a major upset, they sucked the life out of them.  Holy Cross looked and played scared most of the night – they played like they were seeing something they’d never seen before, and they hadn’t.   Intimidation was and would always be a central part of Thompson’s coaching style.  He intimidated the referees, the opposing coach, the opposing crowd and even some of the recruits he was trying to lure to Georgetown.

And he successfully recruited players who took that intimidating approach to the court.  We all know the more famous gladiators, Ewing, Mourning, Mutombo and Iverson.  But it was names like Gene Smith, Ed Spriggs,(who was working as a mailman when he was recruited) Ralph Dalton and Michael Graham that gave the team its personality.  Thompson wanted players who were athletic, tough and not afraid to fight.  He wanted kids who played defense first and valued rebounds, blocked shots and steals above points.  If you could shoot, that was fine too, but that was a bonus.

Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of talent on the teams Thompson coached.  But what made them winners, and national champions, was the intimidating ferociousness that was aptly branded as Hoya Paranoia. These teams gave forty minutes of hell real meaning.  They had an attitude that defeated many teams before the game even started.

A couple of examples.   Patrick Ewing spent the first half of his first season getting into a fight almost every game.  He understood that he needed to send a message to all of college basketball that he would not be backed down.  Don’t forget the beginning of the 1982 finals where Ewing goal-tended the first 3 or 4 shots taken by North Carolina.  Taken on talent alone, the Hoyas were not a match with Jordan, Worthy and Sam Perkins.  But they took it down to the wire because of their toughness.

And Michael Graham.  He just looked scary and played even tougher.  Not a great basketball player by any stretch of the imagination.  But his presence in 1984 made the difference and his absence in 1985 did also.

And don’t forget the towering presence of Thompson roaming the sidelines engaging in a loud and profane dialogue with almost everyone in the building.  If you thing opposing coaches and teams were not intimidated you’d be wrong.

Georgetown’s national championship was technically won on a Monday night in Seattle against Houston and Hakeem.  They really won that championship playing an extremely talented Kentucky team on Saturday.  During the second half, Georgetown held a great team scoreless for 9:45.  Not a single point in almost ten minutes in the national semifinals.  It wasn’t just bad shooting.  If you ever get a chance to see a tape of the game, look at the faces of the Kentucky players walking off the court.  They were totally demoralized, intimidated and stunned by the end of the second half – a team with several first round NBA picks.

So what has this got to do with this year’s team beyond an interesting family comparison?  Does it mean the cerebral, deliberate Hoyas squad can’t be national champions?  Not at all.  Does it mean we need to get more intimidating, tough and arrogant?  That wouldn’t be so bad. 

 Teams that intimidate physically and mentally almost always win at the college level.  There are a lot of ways to do it.  Coach K is the best there is right now.  He intimidates the referees, opposing players and coaches and even the NCAA –just look at his bracket last year. 

The single best example of the importance of attitude and toughness is Duke versus UNLV.  In the 1990 finals, UNLV led by Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Andersen Hunt blew Duke out by 30 points.  They didn’t just beat them, they destroyed them mentally and physically like a Thompson team of the 80’s.

That was more than Coach K could take.  The next year the same two teams played with the same rosters and Duke won.  Coach K changed the makeup of the team without making a single roster change or bringing in a new five star recruit.  It became Christian Laettner’s team, they were tough, chippy and never backed down.  They didn’t become more skilled, developed more speed or jumping ability, they just got a lot tougher. As much as we all hate both of them, you can’t deny the success.

Georgetown has the talent to go a long way in 2011.  To go all the way however, I think they’ll need to do more intimidating and less back cuts.  You don’t have to be 6’10", profane and scary to intimidate like Thompson Jr. did.  You do need to strike fear into the other team.  So it will be fun to watch this year if both JTIII and Austin and Chris can channel some of Dad and the spirit of Michael Graham.  They don’t need to change offensive philosophy or personnel. 

Remember what Duke did, they changed their mindset, they got tougher, they became even more arrogant and intimidating than Tarkanian’s Running Rebels.

We know that we have that in us, as evidenced by the Duke game last year.  But can we sustain that over a whole season?

They’ll be fun to watch no matter what this year.  They are talented, seasoned and (Hoya Talk alert) seem like really good young men.  How far they’ll go I think will be directly related to how aggressive, tough and yes, arrogant, both team and coach can become.

Stay Casual, my friends.

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