- Jeff Shelman
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WASHINGTON -- John Thompson III sits down in a chair in the Georgetown basketball office, and the tradition built by his father is impossible to miss.
On the wall behind him in McDonough Gymnasium is a picture of former Hoyas center Patrick Ewing, arms outstretched and rocking the tight old-school gray T-shirt under his jersey. Shelves on Thompson's right feature shoes autographed by former Georgetown players who have reached the NBA. In the far corner is a photo of legendary Hoyas coach John Thompson Jr. standing on the sidelines -- towel, of course, draped over his shoulder -- giving instruction to a guard with closely cropped hair named Allen Iverson.
The topic on this day, naturally, is basketball. Speaking with three reporters, Thompson is discussing Saturday's loss to Vanderbilt, this Saturday's game at Oregon and next Thursday's game at No. 12 Illinois.
What? Vanderbilt, Oregon and Illinois in consecutive games? And this is the regular season? And you mean the Hoyas still have a January nonconference game to play against Duke?
Adding already-completed road victories over Navy and James Madison and a late-December trip to the Sun Bowl Tournament in El Paso, Texas, Georgetown will play six games away from home before the beginning of the Big East schedule. No conference team will play more games away from home in December, and most schools are only playing one or two road games.
What happened to Georgetown's seemingly annual games with St. Leo? Where's that early-season road trip to Hawaii-Loa or Hawaii Pacific? What happened to the days when the Hoyas spent December as an honorary member of the MEAC?
Asked what his father thinks of his schedule, the second-year Georgetown coach is blunt: "He thinks I'm a fool. That's a fact."
The former Princeton player and head coach, however, is fine with that assessment. His job is to prepare the Hoyas for life in the bigger Big East. His team -- one with six players who started at least 15 games last season returning -- doesn't lack confidence, so six weeks of cupcakes wouldn't help this group as much as it may help others.
This schedule, Thompson hopes, will prepare the Hoyas for what awaits them in January. Will a trip to Connecticut, Marquette or Villanova really be any more difficult than a game at Illinois' Assembly Hall? Probably not. Will facing Oregon's backcourt trio of Aaron Brooks, Malik Hairston and Bryce Taylor give Georgetown's players a pretty good replication of the Big East's best backcourts? Probably.
"The nature of our schedule is that we can have some tough times," said Thompson, who is also dealing off the court with his wife being diagnosed with cancer. "We realized that when we put it together. But at the end of the day, we have to be prepared for the Big East -- and hopefully we will.
"We want to put ourselves in a position where we can grow and improve."
The next week will also provide a good barometer of just where the Hoyas stand in Year 2 of the JTIII era. Last season, Georgetown was the biggest surprise in the Big East, improving from 13-15 in 2003-04 to 19-13. The Hoyas defeated Pittsburgh, Villanova and West Virginia in league play, while Syracuse needed overtime to defeat them. Seven of the Hoyas' losses were by seven or fewer points. As a result, Georgetown was in the mix for an NCAA Tournament invitation until the final weeks of the season.
The Hoyas, however, were ultimately undone by a five-game losing streak in late February and early March that included bad losses to St. John's and Providence. This season, a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001 is a primary goal.
"Is it important? It's extremely important," Thompson said. "But it's a building process. Our [long-term] goal is not to get to the tournament, it's to win the tournament. But you have to take steps along the way. It's a first step.
"We were extremely close [last season] ... we have to improve. Inasmuch as we have the same pieces back, a year older doesn't necessarily make you a year better."
That said, Thompson's hope is that the Hoyas will have to think less on the offensive end. A year ago, Thompson and his staff spent a disproportionate amount of time drilling the players in the intricacies of the Pete Carril/Bill Carmody offense.
"They have somewhat of a feel of what we're trying to accomplish, what we're trying to do," Thompson said. "Like most things, if you do it long enough, you hopefully become more accustomed to it. Hopefully in Year 2, there's a little more playing than reacting and thinking.
"This year we spent more time, probably more than normal, on skill development and player improvement, where last year it was about how we were going to play."
At October's Big East media day, Georgetown was singled out by several coaches -- most noticeably Connecticut's Jim Calhoun -- as a potential dark horse to win the league title. While the Hoyas don't have the same talent as the Huskies, Louisville, Villanova or Syracuse, they have returning players and a somewhat reasonable schedule by Big East standards.
In the conference's currently whacked format, Georgetown doesn't play Louisville or Seton Hall. The Hoyas will play St. John's and West Virginia twice. That runs in contrast to the schedule of the league's top programs, which all seemingly play each other twice.
Thompson isn't quite as convinced. Like nearly every college coach this time of the year, Thompson is fixated on what needs improvement rather than what is working.
"What other people think does not matter. It's up to that group of people that's in that gym right now," Thompson said. "Whether people think you stink, you're awful, you don't have a shot or they think you're great, we have to do it. Basketball is not like politics ... we have to cross those lines and do it.
"For us to have success, everyone has to be good. That hasn't changed."
Are the Hoyas going to be good? The next week will tell a lot.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.