Commentary

Back-to-back league titles show Hoyas are here to stay

Originally Published: March 8, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Unprompted, the booming voice in the back of the room launched into a slow, steady tutorial for his son standing at the podium.

[+] EnlargeJohn Thompson III
AP Photo/Nick WassJohn Thompson III accomplished something his father never did: back-to-back Big East regular season titles.
"Ask them when they're going to compare you to your peers, not Pete Carril and your father," John Thompson Jr. bellowed. "You're never going to make a damn dime being compared to ancient people. You need to be compared to your peers, who you've done extremely well against, as opposed to your ancient dad and Pete Carril."

John Thompson III, his Georgetown team's second consecutive Big East regular-season crown sewn up, simply smiled. Long accustomed to living in his father's looming shadow, JTIII isn't interested in chasing windmills, holding up the gene pool or living up to other people's standards.

And he no longer has to. By winning back-to-back conference titles, the son accomplished something the Hall of Fame father never did. On a greater scale, the Hoyas' dogfight of a 55-52 victory over Louisville solidified Georgetown once more as a program, not simply a flash-in-the-pan team.

Last year's run to the Final Four might have signaled Georgetown was back from its dark days. This title says the Hoyas are here to stay.

"It's great to see this," said Patrick Ewing, swarmed by fans at halftime as he watched his namesake son play (all the while, an unmolested Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chomped on a hot dog behind him). "To see this place sold out -- it was always like that when I played, but to see it like this now, they've done an unbelievable job here."

Winning the Big East is akin to taking a left from Mike Tyson and a right from Muhammad Ali, followed by a nice uppercut from Bernard Hopkins. The league is not built for sissies or the faint of heart -- never has been. Until Saturday, no team had gone 2-for-2 in claiming regular-season titles since Connecticut in 1997-98 and 1998-99.

As if the reputation of the blue-collar, beastly conference weren't enough, it has bloated to the unwieldy size of 16 teams, tarnishing if not the reputation of individual teams, certainly their attractiveness. Gaudy records are impossible and ugly losses a guarantee.

But if you look at the teams as teams -- not as RPIs and records and flat statistics -- not only is it easy to make a slam-dunk case for six to be in the NCAA Tournament and a decent argument for as many as eight, you also could easily pencil as many as five (Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Marquette) in to the Sweet 16 bracket without much ridicule.

Rick Pitino, not exactly a fan of the mammoth league size, has flitted in and out of the Big East but could easily serve as league historian. He drops the old-school names, Louie Carnesecca and Rollie Massimino, but lives in the present day and appreciates well how unique and difficult Georgetown's accomplishment is.

[+] EnlargeCondoleezza Rice, Patrick Ewing Sr.
AP Photo/Nick WassIt's back to the old days, like when Patrick Ewing was manning the middle at Georgetown.
"It's very impressive," Pitino said. "We came in the league at the wrong time. We came in rebuilding off a Final Four. We had a rebuilding job, but the last two years, we've finished as one of the teams at the top. Georgetown's been terrific. It's very tough with this many teams to do it twice."

The game for the regular-season crown -- only the second time in league history two teams went head-to-head to coronate a champion in the season finale -- was sweetly indicative of what the Big East is about.

It was brutal and ugly and beautiful all at once. Shots were harder to come by than Kleenex at a Brett Favre news conference, and the unforced and forced errors rivaled those of a crummy tennis match. Ten minutes in, the score stood at 10-7. Georgetown had five turnovers, Louisville six. Louisville went 15 consecutive possessions in the first half without scoring; not to be outdone, Georgetown all but blew an 11-point second-half lead with three cough-ups on three trips down the court.

But for people reared in the heyday of the league, there was nothing painful about it. It was exactly right.

"I'm sitting there in the first half, thinking, 'This is old-school Big East basketball," Thompson III said.

That the game came down to an almost perfectly executed play somehow seemed poetic. With the score knotted at 52 after Louisville's Earl Clark hit one of two free throws with 1:12 left, the Hoyas' Jonathan Wallace patiently ran the offense, waiting for a sliver of a window. He found it when Terrence Williams failed to roll toward DaJuan Summers sitting in the wings. Wallace fed Summers, David Padgett got out just a second late and Summers swished the 3-pointer right in front of his bench.

Georgetown's been terrific. It's very tough with this many teams to do it twice.

-- Louisville coach Rick Pitino

"I cut through on the initial play; I was on the opposite wing," Summers said. "I came through the baseline to stretch the defense out, but nobody came. So when Jon penetrated or whatever he did, I was set and ready to shoot. That's the only reason I made it, because I was set and ready to shoot."

There is no doubt this Hoyas team isn't perfect. They lost only three conference games, but took one game (Connecticut) when 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert drained a 3-pointer, another (Villanova) when a whistle 75 feet from the hoop sent Wallace to the line to win it and another (West Virginia) when Patrick Ewing Jr. blocked a shot at the buzzer.

"Let's put it this way: If they were at the race track, we'd all be up a lot of money right now," Pitino quipped.

But Georgetown toted a burden this year it hadn't carried since Thompson Jr. tucked away his white towel. Courtesy of last year's regular-season crown, the tournament title and the Final Four run, the Hoyas once more were the team everyone was chasing.

Yet they still carried the hardware at the end, a grinning Summers lugging a trophy proportionally sized to the girth of the league into the media room.

"It was a different outlook this year; teams prepared for us a little better because they caught on to what our system was trying to do last year, so it called for us to kind of counteract what they did," Walllace said. "We had a couple of ups and downs through the course of the season, but that made us better as a team, hopefully."

Really, this is all borderline stunning. When JTIII left the security and success of Princeton, a jump from the Ivy League to the Big East that normally would seem like a mammoth leap up the success ladder, more than a few people wondered whether he was killing his career. Caught in the shifting landscape of college athletics, where private Catholic schools struggled without the benefit of the almighty BCS football dollar, Georgetown had virtually disappeared from the hoops horizon. Hoya Paranoia was a regular on the NIT circuit.

[+] EnlargeRoy Hibbert
AP Photo/Nick WassCenter Roy Hibbert has helped lead the Hoyas to the Sweet 16 and Final Four the last two seasons.
But the thing about JTIII, the thing that maybe even his own father doesn't appreciate, is that he is unafraid to embrace his family's legacy while simultaneously standing as his own man. He didn't make brash promises of greatness when hired, but in his quiet, unassuming way guaranteed incremental improvement.

It came swifter than anyone could have expected, a Sweet 16 in his second season, a Final Four in his third, but Thompson never wavered from the plan and, two Big East crowns later, still hasn't.

So while Thompson Jr. might have been irked by the run up to the Final Four, with Carril earning as much ink as he did when Princeton upset UCLA and Papa John feted and celebrated and poked and prodded, none of it registered with his son.

"I've said this from the first day, the first press conference, it's a process, and I still feel that way," JTIII said. "We're still at the early stages of that process. We've been fortunate to have some success, but we're at the early stages in terms of where I want to be."

Asked if maybe he wasn't being a bit greedy, considering all he's accomplished so far, Thompson grinned.

"It's my job to be greedy in that regard. I want to stay greedy as far as that goes."

In the back of the media room, dad smiled.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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