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Cut from the Same Cloth (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday March 18, 2008 9:12AM; Updated: Tuesday March 18, 2008 9:12AM
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By Alexander Wolff

Big John often comes to Hoya practices, but there's no doubt about who is in charge there.
Big John often comes to Hoya practices, but there's no doubt about who is in charge there.
Simon Bruty/SI

Thompson's attention to detail could be seen right from the season's first moments, when the freshman fans at Georgetown's Midnight Madness preseason practice made a mess of the "We are . . . Georgetown" chant that again resonates at home games. Thompson shook his head. "Fix it, Jon," he said, handing a wireless microphone to Jonathan Wallace, his senior point guard, so Wallace might lead the benighted first years through Cheering 101. Signs reading FIX IT, JON have appeared at Hoyas games ever since. "He lets you know every day that this is a game of inches, not feet," says guard Jessie Sapp. "You have to take it an inch at a time."

This isn't merely how Thompson's players learn in practice. It's how they've come to think in games. Consider that comeback win against West Virginia in late January. The Hoyas edged into the lead on Sapp's three-pointer in the final seconds, but during Georgetown's last defensive stand, Patrick Ewing Jr. failed to warn teammate Jeremiah Rivers of a screen, which opened a path to the basket for the Mountaineers ball handler. Fix it, Pat. Ewing desperately scampered over to block what would have been a game-winning layup. Later he told the press that all he could think of was atoning for his mistake.

"We don't get rattled," says Thompson, who attributes much of his endgame serenity to the teachings of his old coach at Princeton, Pete Carril. "I've been taught that that's what the game is, the situation before you. Our job is to teach. Their job is to figure it out, together. If we're going through that process, there's no time to get worried.

"That's how I operate. Good, bad, I don't know. But we must slowly, methodically prepare for the next opponent, the next possession. You understand what your goal is -- to win a national championship. Then you forget about it. Let's get better today. You can get lost if you wander."

It's a waste of time to ask Thompson why he's so dialed into the moment. "You are who you are," he says. "There's too much work to be done to go through self-analysis. You guys [in the press] can figure me out. I don't need to figure myself out."

But he'll talk expansively of his influences. "Pops, Coach, my mom, Marv," he says. "I hope you see a little of all of them when you see me."

A brief cast of characters: Pops is Georgetown's Hall of Fame patriarch, who was as devoted to the grand gesture as his son is to the tiny increment. Coach is Carril, another Hall of Famer and the fussbudget for whom John III played and later apprenticed at Princeton and of whom he says, "There aren't too many days I don't hear his voice in my head." Mom is Gwen Thompson, whom friends and family agree young John most takes after. (Gwen and John Jr. were divorced in 1999.) And Marv is Marvin Bressler, a world-weary sociology professor, now retired, and longtime faculty adviser to the Princeton basketball team. Which is to say, John III is two parts Thompson and two parts Tiger.

That probably accounts for why he's so different from his famous father. Pops never would have asked an end-of-the-bencher as they walked off at halftime what he thinks the team might do differently, or let a reportorial nostril anywhere near the scented candle that today burns in the office of the Georgetown coach. "John weighs things," says his father. "When he says, 'Uh-huh,' it means he's heard you, not that he agrees with you. When I say, 'Uh-huh,' I got my mind made up."

"He got along with everybody," remembers Carril, which couldn't have been said of him or Pops. "He gets along with officials too." (Some people think that this helps account for his teams' success in close games.)

As a hoops pedagogue, John III is most like Carril. The father's teams were primarily about defense played offensively; the son's are -- and Carril's were -- more about offense played defensively. When he arrived at Georgetown, John III knocked down a couple of walls in the basketball office to create a common space where coaches could swap ideas, as the staff did at Princeton.

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