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TO UNDERSTAND why Georgetown coach John Thompson III regards basketball the way he does—as an accretion of details and small remediations—it's worth revisiting a February night in Providence in 1988. Back then Thompson served as Princeton's senior co-captain, and the Tigers led Brown by two points with seconds to play. As he prepared to inbound under his own basket, Thompson began to experience what he calls "the loneliest feeling in basketball." ¶ The referee had begun his five-second count. Teammates couldn't seem to shake themselves open. No timeouts remained. Finally, Thompson threw a pass down the floor. ¶ "I could see the ball slide like a curveball as it came out of John's hand," remembers a teammate, Bob Scrabis, who watched helplessly from downcourt. (Scrabis says that Thompson had a bum hand with two taped fingers, but today the man who threw the pass won't even hint at an alibi.) A Brown player picked off the pass 50 feet away and heaved up a shot to beat the buzzer. From beneath the basket Thompson watched as the ball traced a path through the net, almost precisely to the spot where he stood.
This is the act in his basketball life that Thompson most wishes he could have back, when one of the best passing forwards in Princeton history failed at the skill he had made his own. It would be one of only 39 turnovers Thompson committed all season, against 103 assists. But as a result the Tigers suffered their third consecutive one-point loss in Ivy League play and second straight at the buzzer, relegating them to a third-place finish in the conference. Thompson's class of 1988 became the first Princeton team since 1959 not to play in a postseason tournament.
"Who told you about that?" Thompson says two decades later, sitting in the Georgetown basketball office. "That's never been written before."
He rises from his chair and makes his way to a window, where he inspects the bracken behind McDonough Arena. For a moment he's quiet, a captain again, feeling the weight of leadership. Then he turns. "I let the team down, the coach down, the program down," he says. "It still hurts. It's one of the things that drives me."
As he finishes his fourth season at Georgetown, fire and fastidiousness in equal measure have helped Thompson, 42, resurrect the program his father once built into an unlikely basketball power. Big John Thompson's eldest son guided the Hoyas to the NCAA Final Four last spring and to a repeat first-place finish in the Big East Conference this season (the latter a feat his father never accomplished). For next season John III has commitments from four of Rivals.com's top 100 high school recruits, including No. 1 Greg Monroe, a 6'10" forward from Hayden, La., who chose Georgetown over Duke without even visiting Durham. And over the past two seasons the Hoyas have proved to be masters of both the comeback and the close game. A year ago they wiped out deficits in three straight NCAA tournament victories, including a defeat of Vanderbilt on forward Jeff Green's buzzer-beater, and an even more memorable 11-point recovery against North Carolina in regulation before winning in OT. This season the Hoyas made up six points in the final 3 1/2 minutes to beat Connecticut when 7'2" center Roy Hibbert sank only the second three-pointer of his career; and they made up five points in the last 2 1/2 minutes to win at West Virginia. In all, they were 6--0 in games decided by three points or fewer in the regular season. In a tournament game that comes down to the short strokes, Georgetown might be the last team any title aspirant wants to face.
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."