This is a special collaboration by Two Casual Wisemen: SleepyHoya and BashfulHoya.
John Thompson III is a good coach. Nobody can dispute that, not with a Final Four appearance and three Big East Championship appearances in just his first six years as head coach. But, as I've opined in various casual places on this blog, I've never thought JTIII was a great coach, someone who was destined for the Hall of Fame like several of his fellow Big East colleagues.
The best part of the recent eight game winning streak is that I believe we may have seen JTIII take it to a new level and perhaps become an elite head coach. In putting together this piece, I wondered whether perhaps his Dad had a seminal stretch of games that raised the level of his coaching, so naturally I asked Bashful Hoya, who knows him well, to opine on that question.
Like Father, Like Son after The Jump:
It may be wishful thinking, but here is a brief case for JTIII emerging as an elite coach right in front of our eyes over the last month:
1) His gameplan against Syracuse was the best I've ever seen.
Putting Chris Wright at the foul line to create from within the 2-3 zone was genius. And, more importantly, it's why we won the game. I've never seen that zone attacked that way by a 6 foot point guard. It seemed like real original thinking and it obviously was effective.
2) JT III has seen these in-season swoons before.
But this is the first time he has really pulled the team out of a tailspin and made them a better team for it. While the NCAAs will be the ultimate test this year, this team has a better feel and Thompson has to get some of the credit for it.
3) A renewed emphasis on defense and rebounding.
For the last 3 years, every time Thompson was interviewed all I heard from him was about shot selection, ball movement, spacing and the system. Over the past two months he talks about only two things -- defense and rebounding. What he says matters to the players. And, he has engineered the turnaround by getting a bunch of offensive minded players to dedicate themselves to defense and rebounding. We can't win without it, and Coach seems to really appreciate that more this year.
4) Committing to the bench.
We've always had a bench, fifteen players or so always suit up. The difference this year is JTIII committed himself to using the bench and trusting the bench. The bench is playing better in part because JTIII committed to them early. We can't win or go deep into the tournament without a bench. JTIII is making sure we have one this year.
5) Nate Lubick and Hollis Thompson.
It's easy to say putting Nate in the starting lineup was a stroke of coaching genius. It was a good, smart and probably overdue move. We are better for it and Coach deserves credit. The real coaching greatness here is how he handled Hollis behind closed doors. How many 19 year old kids who get benched respond the way Hollis has? How many kids dedicate themselves to what the coach says is important, defense and rebounding, and not what looks good on the stat sheet. Hollis became sixth man because Nate is a better rebounder. Hollis responded by grabbing 13 rebounds in one game and earning time at the end of the game. That says a lot about Hollis, but I also think it shows huge growth on the part of his coach.
Now, Bashful's take on Junior, or rather what I'll call informed and smart commentary rather than the above rank speculation:
John Thompson Jr. arrived at Georgetown in the fall of 1972 as the new head coach for a program that had just suffered through a 3-23 season, the school’s worst ever. While almost all of the press at that time focused on the coach’s skin color, slightly less verbiage was spent on his coaching style and abilities. JTII arrived at the Hilltop as a successful high school coach but what was more important, in retrospect, was that he was a champion basketball player. Of course we all knew he was a tall and talented player who had won championships in high school, college and the pros but he was also someone who had discovered the secrets of being a champion and had begun a career to coach young people in those secrets. Sleepy Hoya asked me if there was one period of time when Coach Thompson "came into his own" as a coach and my thoughts are that there wasn’t. I’m sure he improved as a coach with time but he arrived at being a coach with a strong knowledge and confidence in what in took to win, developed a system that accommodated different players and different skill sets and more or less stuck with it for his entire career. The results of the system followed the talent level and efforts of the players pretty closely.
What I’d like to do is analyze his development as a coach by looking at four areas:
As many already know JTII played for one of the legendary HS teams, Archbishop Carroll. They won 55 consecutive games in 1958-60 and 2 DC titles. They also had five outstanding players (JT II was not considered the best player on the teams) all of whom had complimentary skills and played with great cohesion. He went onto Providence College where he was the best player on the team and won an NIT championship—a big deal in those days. After that he played backup center for Bill Russell on two NBA Championship teams and retired to coach and teach at St. Anthony’s HS in DC. That is an impressive pedigree but the important part is the experience of knowing how to fashion a winning and collaborative effort at three different levels and with different people as teammates. That ability to collaborate is the essence of winning basketball more so than any other sport. The difference between a good or great player (Chamberlain) and a champion (Russell, Magic, Bird, Jordan) is the ability to integrate into the team and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. JT II understood that and had the personality and ambition to develop it as a coach.
II. His System:
I’ve described his system previously so to recap from November:
His real breakthrough was his defensive scheme. He could change the defense every time down the court by yelling (or having the point guard yell a single number). That is also why the team always huddled at every foul shot. Numbers in the 50s were man to man, the 30s were zone. So 55 was full court pressure on the inbound, 54 was full court, 53 was three quarters court, 52, half and 51 fall back to pick up man. 35-31 with the zones. If you look at films from the seventies almost no one pressured so long so often. Now it is routine. Also, back then opposing coaches were used to dealing with defensive changes once every 8 minutes or so. When confronted with a team that changed every time down the court and could go from zone to man to man in the process, it blew up almost every offensive scheme.
JT II’s offense was a simple motion offense and the real offensive explosions came from defensive sparked runs and fast breaks. The offense benefited from the general chaos that defense created.
He stuck with this system for his entire coaching career and it basically represented the talent of his players. He was never a great X and O coach in the mold of a coach who would call a timeout at the end of the game and diagram a creative and winning play. He kept it simple and understandable, stocked it with tall, fast and athletic players and made them work hard. If he were to make a strategic decision in a game it would more often than not be in the beginning of the game to set a tone. The most famous example of that is the decision to have Ewing goaltend the first 5 or 6 shots that UNC threw up in the 1982 championship game. That set a great tone for the rest of the game. It intimidated everyone on UNC except for Worthy and but for an errant pass or Jordan jumper it would have stolen a championship.
III. Building a Program:
As his career at GU developed, he was able to attract higher levels of talent and the results were evident over three periods of a build out to the 1984 championship team.
1. The St. Anthony’s Period ('72-'76) - JTII took his core players from HS (Wilson, Brooks, and Smith) added some other talent (Lynn, Jackson, Hopkins) and had a team that qualified for two NCAA tournaments when only 25 teams qualified. None of these players eventually played in the NBA so this was a very effective job of coaching
2. The Dunbar Period ('77-'81)—when his 1976 class graduated, JTII reloaded with the two best players in DC, both form Dunbar: Shelton and Duren. Combining them with Jackson, Floyd and Steve Martin these teams made postseason tournaments every year and missed the Final Four by a last second field goal against Iowa. They also replaced Maryland as the team from DC. Three of these players were NBA first round choices.
3. The Ewing Period – I kidded Sleepy Hoya that JT II became a great coach the day he signed Ewing and it is true because Ewing was the talent that allowed the system to flourish. JT II tells the story of going to see a recruit play at asst. coach Bill Stein’s request. Patrick was a sophomore in that game and wasn’t the targeted recruit. JTII saw Ewing and said "who is that?" Stein told him and JTII said "get me that kid and I’ll win an NCAA championship". Well it all happened and Patrick, along with a number of other NBA caliber players, made GU the scourge of college basketball for four years. When you watch the epic second half of the Kentucky national semifinal, the offense and defense are the same that ran against St. Francis (Pa.) in JTII's first college game in November 1972.
IV: JTII’s coaching values: Practice
JTII valued two things above all else in terms of the values that he needed from his players - hard work and teamwork. As he used to say, this is not a democracy. What he said determined whether you were working hard. Everyone was required to show up the first day and run a mile in your basketball sneaks up on the Kehoe field track. Some were sub 5 minute miles. After that the hard work started. Practices were 3 hours and consisted of the following in this order.
1. Stretching and calisthenics
2. Drills - very hard drills for all necessary skills: one on one defending, dribbling, passing, shooting, rebounding, beating the offensive player to a spot on the floor, boxing out, diving for loose balls—yes there is a drill for this. A coach stands under the basket with a player to his right and left, he rolls a ball towards half court, when the ball passes the foul line both players release to see who gets it by diving on it - fun!
3. Running - suicide drills, full-court sprints and the entire team running laps around the gym in single file. When JT II blew the whistle, the last player had to sprint past 15 players to the front and continue running. Eventually the whistle was blowing every couple of seconds.
4. Thompson Homily - will describe later
5. Squads of five running skeletons of offensive and defensive sets
6. Review of next opponent’s offensive and defensive sets and personnel
8. More drills
9. More running, with occasional competitions to see who wins the sprints to end practice before the losers
V: Teamwork: The Thompson Homily
JT II emphasized this in a number of ways. Some became well known such as staying away from outside influences. This could be achieved by lodging at an effective distance from civilization at away games (creates good bonding experiences). But I think the most effective tool was what I called the Thompson homily. Almost every practice paused for 15-20 minutes after the really exhausting drills and running and we sat around to rest. JTII used the time to extrapolate on anything he wanted. Sometimes it involved stories of characters from Boys Club #2 , his experiences in college or pro basketball, national events or really anything. Some were funny, some serious and some involved some serious yelling at us for perceived failings, but all of them tried to eventually make salient and necessary points. We needed to rely only on ourselves to excel, to work hard and prepare diligently and to trust and work with our teammates and coaches. You often heard him talk in interviews about how hard the kids work. It was drilled into us. In the end, I likened it to my parents making me do my homework every night so that I would be prepared and confident for tests in grammar school and HS. It worked for them and it worked for JTII. I think if he came back to coach today, nothing and I mean absolutely nothing would change.
Again, we may be reading too much into a short winning streak. There are still areas JTIII needs to improve: play calling and execution coming out of timeouts, being less predictable on defense on out of bounds plays on the defensive end. And a bad loss or two will probably have us all scratching our heads again. But, if we all get what we want, we may reflect on this team and this year as a turning point for JTIII. More simply, we got to watch a good coach morph into a great one.