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A Reflection on the The JT3 Era

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John Thompson III was fired as the Georgetown men’s basketball coach on Thursday. The day was stunning and sad and, after recent turmoil, it also was a necessary relief.

All of us were unsure about what would happen after the Hoyas’ second straight losing season, one marked by not just defeats but a toxic environment surrounding the program. Some of us thought that Thompson and Georgetown would part ways. None of us wanted it to end this way. But the dramatic decline of Hoya hoops in recent years led many of us to the conclusion that a change was needed and would be coming.

But there have been few mainstays like the Thompsons and Georgetown over the past forty years. The family built and rebuilt the Hoya basketball program. Even those who foresaw JT3’s departure thought that the history ensured that any transition would be amicable. Today proved otherwise, as Thompson did not depart the Hilltop by resignation, but by termination. JT3 left with typical class, thanking the university and President DeGioia and speaking warmly of the honor of coaching the Hoyas for 13 years. As that statement made clear, the acrimoniousness of the past two seasons and Thompson’s departure should not detract from what he achieved.

Thompson restored Georgetown basketball to national prominence that it previously enjoyed under his father, John Thompson, Jr. After Pops retired, the Hoyas were diminished, appearing just once in the NCAA Tournament in the six years between Thompsons. The last season of Craig Esherick’s interregnum was a particular low point, when Georgetown lost its last nine games, many in embarrassing fashion, and finished with a losing record. The Hoyas appeared to be not just bad, but in disarray.

JT3’s hire in 2004, along with the arrival of a talented recruiting class, changed that trajectory. While Pops remained as eminence grise, the son went about the hard work of rebuilding. Just 38 years old at the time of his hire, JT3 molded a young team in his Princeton image, assembling an efficient offense that was good enough to break even in Big East play and make some noise in the post-season. After years of disorganization, Thompson brought youth, energy, order, and optimism to the Hilltop.

If year one was a trickle, the 2005-06 season brought the flood. A thrilling, signature win over top-ranked Duke in January announced Georgetown’s return to power, as the Hoyas back-cut and bombed the visiting Blue Devils to death. The reenergized faithful stormed the court after the upset, one in a seven-game winning streak that vaulted the Hoyas back into the national rankings. The season ended in the Sweet Sixteen, just an errant Darrel Owens three-pointer short of knocking off eventual national champion Florida.

The waters continued to rise in Thompson’s third season. Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, and Jonathan Wallace, all of whom saw minutes from day one, were no longer contributors to an egalitarian offense but instead were featured cornerstones. Green and Hibbert made first-team all-conference as the Hoyas rolled through the Big East, rattling off eleven straight victories and sweeping through the Big East Tournament. That March run continued with a convincing closing kick against Boston College, a Green last-second game-winner over Vanderbilt, and a miracle comeback over North Carolina that sent the Hoyas to their first Final Four since 1985.

These early season JT3 teams were marked by a patient, dissecting offense and stifling defense. Hibbert, Green, Patrick Ewing, Jr., and DaJuan Summers comprised a long front line that could contest every shot inside and beyond the arc. On offense, methodical possessions, patient ball movement, and precise cutting yielded long-range bombs and wide-open shots at the rim. The system many of us came to resent for its predictability and stagnation produced genuinely beautiful basketball in those years, while the defense carried forth Pops’s legacy on that end of the floor.

Beyond the court, Georgetown basketball’s resurgence affirmed much of what Hoya hoop fans believed about their program. Importing an offensive system from the Ivy league, later seen as a recruiting and tactical liability, appeared to be a strategic advantage, freeing skilled and insightful Hoyas to probe open spaces on the offensive end neglected by aggressive defenses. Georgetown offenses weren’t just better than opposing defenses, but counterintuitive, and even smarter, an on-court symbol of the university’s high academic reputation. Hoya hoops also kept things in the family, rewarding not just winning at all costs but loyalty and tradition.

That run of success appeared poised to last for several years. Whereas Green and Hibbert were relatively unheralded recruits who developed into pros, a stream of prized prospects soon followed, seemingly ensuring that Georgetown’s second era of dominance would continue. The Big East title and Final Four appearance looked like less of a fluke than a standard.

The good times lasted through the next season, as Georgetown repeated as Big East regular-season champions. That title defense was a bit cobbled together, as the Hoyas used an elite defense and a sometimes shaky offense to pull out memorably improbable wins: in overtime against Syracuse; with a last-second PE Jr. block at West Virginia; on late-earned Wallace free throws at Marquette; and on a winning Summers three-pointer against Louisville before an ecstatic crowd. That luck ran out after the regular season, as the Hoyas lost the BET championship to Pitt, and then suffered a seemingly humiliating collapse in the NCAA Tournament to Davidson, which none of us then understood featured eventual two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry.

Even after the departures of Green and, the following year, Hibbert, the Hoyas remained largely successful. Although a painful 2009 season crumbled under the weight of a particularly grueling Big East schedule, the following four seasons saw Georgetown average 23 wins and a favorable tournament seed. Hoya stars Austin Freeman, Chris Wright, Greg Monroe, Jason Clark, Hollis Thompson, Henry Sims, and Otto Porter rose to prominence, keeping Georgetown in the top 10 year after year.

In addition to aggregate success, these seasons brought exhilarating individual high points. The 2010 team gunned its way to wins over Duke (in front of Obama and Biden!) and Villanova (after a snowstorm!), and almost completed its revenge tour through the Big East Tournament. An imbalanced 2011 squad nevertheless mounted a spectacular comeback at Missouri and then rattled off eight straight Big East wins, including Chris Wright, zone-buster, at Syracuse. The 2012 unit was a boa constrictor, suffocating opponents behind Sims’s superior length and mobility, Clark’s lunch-pail consistency, and a deep, rangy freshman class. And 2013 was the Year of Otto, when the Hoyas rode the Sikeston, Mo. savant’s singularly great season and another big, agile defense to 11 straight conference wins and the last regular-season Big East championship before realignment. Two thrilling wins over the hated Orange, one shutting down the Carrier Dome and the other capping Georgetown’s regular-season title, made for a particularly sweet ending to a magical run.

Still, the post-season specter lingered. The 2008 Davidson defeat spawned imitators, as the Hoyas lost in the NCAA Tournament to double-digit seeds Ohio, VCU, N.C. State, and, perhaps most humiliatingly, Florida-Gulf Coast. Those early-round losses were dispiriting individually and in combination. Unlike the late Davidson collapse, the later upsets were evident early, as Georgetown yielded double-digit deficits to each of its opponents. Those games were out of reach, fast, adding salt to the wound of losing to lesser teams year after year. Soon, Georgetown became a reliable punchline for post-season futility.

In addition to the March sadness, JT3’s middle period brought subtle signs of slippage. Monroe was Thompson’s signature recruit, a skilled big man eminently suited to the Princeton offense and a blue-chip prospect for whose services the Hoyas beat the true blue bloods. But apart from the diamond-in-the-rough Porter, few true studs followed in Monroe’s footsteps. Most memorably, coveted, skilled forward Kyle Anderson—a perfect fit for Thompson’s offense, if ever there was one—spurned the Hoyas in 2011, followed by Nerlens Noel the following year.

Nowhere was the talent decline more noticeable than in the back court. Wright, an elite point guard with the body of a wrecking ball and the heart of a champion, was never really replaced when he graduated in 2011. Instead, Thompson alternated between combo guards and stop-gaps in each of the seasons to come. A dearth of guards was just one element of an ongoing roster construction problem, as JT3 always seemed to have too few playmakers on hands and an overabundance of unskilled big men. One year, the Hoyas would have no wings; the following, no guards. Uncoincidentally, the Hoyas managed just one top-40 offense in the six years after Wright’s departure, producing the three worst offenses of the JT3 era during the same spam.

Recruiting regressions and roster mismanagement were magnified by mistaken evaluations. Most notorious of these mistakes, even now, was Georgetown’s acceptance of a commitment from Stephen Domingo, a Bay Area wing in the high school class of 2013 who committed to Georgetown in the summer of 2012 and then bewilderingly decided to enroll that fall, at age 17. As a result, Domingo was part of a four-man 2012 class that produced more busts (Domingo and Brandon Bolden) than multi-year contributors (star D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera). Domingo’s commitment, along with that of 2013 forward Reggie Cameron, sent local D.C. product and staunch Hoya fan Josh Hart instead to Villanova, where he matured into a national champion in 2016 and a national player of the year this season.

If these mistakes were the tinder, minor misfortunes produced flames, and then full-on bonfires. Greg Whittington’s suspension in January 2013, and then torn ACL the following summer, ended a promising Hoya’s career prematurely and left the Hoyas with just one reliable wing for the season ahead. Josh Smith missed a semester with academic issues while Whittington also was sidelined. Two years later, skilled wing Paul White missed a season with injuries before transferring, while five-star forward Isaac Copeland never fulfilled his promise before following White out the door.

The final element of Georgetown’s downturn over the past four years has been bad strategy. The Hoyas’ physical brand of defense has proven unsustainable as NCAA rule changes have emphasized freedom of movement and honed in on hand-checking. Georgetown became one of the worst-fouling teams in the country year after year, routinely gifting opponents points from the free-throw line while the best Hoyas sat with foul trouble. As more opposing defenses opted to pack the paint, Georgetown’s back-cutting has become less effective while fewer Hoyas can punish the opponent from the three-point line.

Combined, these flaws only worsened over time. Mid-major upsets, once the province of March, came ever earlier, three seasons ago in a defeat against Northeastern, and then last season with home losses to Radford, Monmouth, and UNC-Asheville, only to be repeated again this season. The Hoyas’ chronic fouling problems did not improve even as their personnel changed. Georgetown missed the tournament and, after a one-year return, slipped badly last season, ending with their first losing season under JT3.

Thompson promised a turned page entering the this past campaign. He described a summer of reflection and reevaluation, brought in a new, guard-centric staff, imported perimeter athletes, and proclaimed the desire to run more on both sides of the ball. But despite those overhauls, the mood turned sour early. A November collapse against Maryland was followed by a humiliating defeat at McDonough by Arkansas State. By the time Georgetown returned from a deflating Thanksgiving trip to Maui, the season already appeared to be lost. The Hoyas regressed as the season went on, reverting to a slower Princeton offense while failing to improve on defense. Georgetown once again finished with a losing record, compiling a mark of just 29-36 over the past two years, and just 3-17 in February and March, when the Hoyas finished with a whimper.

That level of defeat was unheard of in the modern era of Georgetown basketball, but the losing alone didn’t lead to JT3’s removal. Simmering fan frustration boiled over. Calls for Thompson’s ouster were common, both in the media and in the arena, where desperate loyalist staffers blasted music to drown out the boos and confiscated signs from indignant fans. Many more fans simply stopped going to games, as the Hoyas continued a multi-year attendance decline. By the end, Thompson was deflecting routine questions about his future, when media were allowed to ask those questions at all. National media scrutiny and post-season roster defections followed, only increasing the darkness of the final days. Georgetown fans accustomed to March psychodrama on the court now saw it off the hardwood.

Firing JT3 would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Thompson’s achievements at Georgetown were many, and his legacy, combined with that of his father, seemed to have secured lifetime tenure for him on the Hilltop. He was largely successful, beloved, and part of a family that was responsible for and inextricably linked to Georgetown basketball. After years of stability and relative success, the final unraveling was shocking and sudden. Even those who bore witness to that collapse thought that JT3 might resign, and had ruled out the eventual firing.

Today was a sad ending for a man who has done so much. A change was necessary, but the circumstances of the change were ugly and unsuited to what JT3 accomplished at Georgetown.

Thompson finished his career on the Hilltop not just as John Thompson, Jr.’s son but as the architect of a second successful era of Georgetown basketball. The Hoyas won 65 percent of the games he coached, an impressive ratio. JT3 won three Big East regular season titles and one Big East Tournament title. His teams appeared in the NCAA Tournament eight times, advancing to one Sweet Sixteen and a Final Four. He turned four Hoyas into first-round NBA draft picks, only one of whom arrived at the Hilltop as a surefire pro.

Thompson also advanced the program off of the court. He was instrumental in the planning and construction of the athletics center that bears his father’s name. That will get short shrift here, but the center will stand for future Georgetown coaches to recruit and develop future Hoyas. In a cruel twist, the program’s sudden decline coincided with the opening of the facility. As a result, Thompson played a large part in developing a competitive advantage that his successors will enjoy but he couldn’t. He kept Georgetown participating in early-season, high-profile tournaments even as the conference and media landscape shifted under his feet. His program was scandal-free, something that Georgetown students, alumni, and fans could be proud of, win or lose. And he was, to the end, a Georgetown man, not a hired gun from somewhere else, but a proud and dignified representative of the university and the team.

As a poet in the opus Cocktail once philosophized, “Jesus, everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.” Thirteen years is a long goddamned time to be head basketball coach. There are only ten major-college coaches with longer tenures than that, almost all of whom have unassailable resumes. Many more no longer remain, the victims of the same natural attrition that claimed Thompson Thursday. Father Time is undefeated, over the bad but also over the good.

So where does Georgetown basketball go from here? We’ll see in the weeks, months, and years ahead. We can expect a search, and then a hire before the April recruiting period begins. The new coach will be expected to succeed, including guiding teams to the top of the conference standings and to the NCAA Tournament regularly. He will be expected to do so with class and professionalism. Those standards, reestablished under JT3, are a central part of his legacy.

We don’t know the new coach’s name, except that it won’t be Thompson. That will be a new day. It will be hopeful, and also sad, the precise ratio depending on the new coach and the particular fan.

Goodbye, JT3. You’re a good man, and we wish you well.