Do the Hoyas Really Have What It Takes
The ACC-Big East Challenge is a made-for-television festival of dunks that proves little, but it does serve a purpose as college basketball’s version of Cliffs Notes. You pay attention for a couple of nights and, presto, you’re an Instant Expert, with a read on a number of teams that will be littered through the rankings this winter.
We know now, for instance, that Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson is going to struggle to shine as brightly without all-star teammates. We know that Bryant Stith of Virginia and Malik Sealy of St. John’s are among the game’s best unknown players. We know that Syracuse runs only six-deep when pressed by a decent opponent.
We also know Georgetown again has a team that does justice to its name. The Hoyas beat a capable Duke team earlier this week at the Capital Centre, and did it with their customary blend of defense and muscle. They’re unbeaten, ranked sixth in the country and, no doubt, strike fear in the hearts of basketball Joneses throughout the land.
But here is an opinion: If the Hoyas are the sixth-best team in the country, the general quality of college basketball is dropping. John Thompson’s team does have Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo inside, and that’s a lot, but it also is a painfully young team, with three freshman starters, and lacks depth.
The Hoyas proved capable against Duke before a supportive, electric crowd, but written all over them are the markings of a team that will struggle away from home -- and in the NCAA tournament. It would not be the first time. The Hoyas have not made the Final Four since 1985. Perhaps it is time to examine how much of their legend is the result of mythmaking.
Since that fateful night when Villanova upset them in the 1984-85 championship game, the Hoyas have returned to the tournament every year, but advanced beyond the second round only twice. They’ve been knocked out by Xavier, Temple, Michigan State. The two times they advanced to a regional final, they were soundly beaten, by Providence and Duke.
This is a team that, since Patrick Ewing left, has not recruited a single player who has had any impact in the NBA. Mourning and probably Mutombo will soon change that, but don’t mistake the point: The Hoyas are no talent factory. The plain fact is that Thompson has not fared particularly well as a recruiter. Blue-chip players go elsewhere.
One would think that, with the legend Thompson has built, he could choose among blue-chippers. But he is a stubborn man, as he readily admits, and he long ago decided that begging for recruits was demeaning. So he just doesn’t do it. If they don’t want him, forget them; he isn’t going to ask. He isn’t necessarily wrong. But there is a reason for those NCAA losses.
It also is a fact that other coaches use Thompson’s style of basketball to recruit against him. He preaches defense and a no-star system, and he’s won more than 400 games. But the college game is changing, becoming more offensive, a run-and-gun game of three-pointers. UNLV plays pressure defense, but runs it up, too. Offense always seems almost an afterthought to the Hoyas.
Increasingly, Thompson stands out as a defensive coach in an offensive game, a tad out of touch. Other coaches tell recruits they’ll have more fun playing if they don’t go to Georgetown. Walt Williams chose Maryland over Georgetown in part because he wanted to play more than 25 minutes a game and average more than 10 or 12 points. It is an oft-told story these days.
Thompson, again, refuses to change. And, again, he isn’t wrong. It’s hard to argue with a coach who has won at least 20 games every season since 1978. But, at the same time, as top recruits continue to line up at Arizona and North Carolina and Arkansas and points elsewhere, it seems fair to submit that the Hoyas’ man-eating legend is a bit dated.
For all his success, Thompson has never taken a Ewing-less team to the Final Four. That’s a high standard by which to judge, but it’s fair: Thompson has long recruited with the kind of name identification that other coaches only dream about. He hasn’t made the most of it. Maybe this is the season, but don’t count on it. Teams with all-freshman backcourts rarely wind up making headlines.
Please understand that this is by no means a plea for the man’s head. Thompson is a man of high principle in a game that has precious few. Sixty-one of his 63 four-year players have earned their degrees. In that respect, he wins the Final Four every year.
It is his stubbornness that has enabled him to succeed for so long on and off the court, doing it his way in the face of many detractors. But such innate stubbornness does not wax and wane. Those around him -- and in the stands -- simply must live with it, accepting the consequences that disappoint them as well as the consequences they cheer and admire.