Georgetown and St. John’s battled Wednesday night in a game reminiscent of the good old days in the Big East. There were hard fouls, a scuffle, coaches jawing at each other, and an electric crowd to boot.
Then reality set in for these two schools that are now shells of their former selves.
St. John’s advanced to the Big East tournament quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden, 64-63, sending Georgetown home with a second straight losing season and a major decision looming for the program.
In just a few years, head coach John Thompson III has gone from savior to the awkward elephant in the room for the Georgetown athletic department. As Georgetown continues its downward spiral, the university must decide how to proceed with the son of the man responsible for putting the basketball program on the map.
Thompson III took the helm in 2004 after Craig Esherick failed to take the Hoyas to the NCAA tournament for three straight years — the third year being 2003-04, just the Hoyas’ second losing season since the formation of the Big East. It was a homecoming for Thompson III, who grew up watching his father, John Thompson Jr., lead the Hoyas through their glory days in the 1980s. It was his turn to carry on the tradition.
From the start, Thompson III appeared to do just that. He brought Georgetown back to the postseason in 2005, then to the Sweet 16 in 2006. The rebuild culminated in a Big East tournament championship and run to the Final Four in 2007 behind a star-studded team of Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Jonathan Wallace, and DaJuan Summers.
The Hoyas had the potential to be even better the next year when they went 25-4 in the regular season, but fell victim in the second round to Steph Curry’s breakout run with Davidson.
It seemed to be a momentary blip for Thompson III, who was suddenly one of brightest young coaches in the game.
But a decade later, the Hoyas have not returned to the Sweet 16. In that time, they’ve been upset by No. 14 seed Ohio, No. 11 seed VCU, No. 11 seed NC State, and No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast. They also missed the tournament entirely three times in that span.
After the loss to St. John’s, Thompson III was non-committal about his future, skirting the topic and redirecting the conversation to focus on his players.
“Right now at this time I’m concerned about the young men,” he said. “Later on tonight, tomorrow, I don’t know when, I’ll sit back and assess the season and all that.”
Somewhere along the way, something changed for Thompson III at Georgetown, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what and exactly when. His ability to recruit hasn’t dipped — he’s still bringing in top talent. Since 2007, Thompson III has brought in 17 composite four-star recruits and three five-stars.
It’s fair to ask, however, if they’ve been the right players for Thompson III’s system. Georgetown SB Nation blog Casual Hoya grappled with this issue last week, wondering if Bradley Hayes, Isaac Copeland, and Marcus Derrickson were used correctly. They also noted that Georgetown has needed a pure point guard in order to succeed, and they have not had one during their recent free fall. Tremont Waters is coming in next year and should help remedy that. Give Thompson III and the still-new coaching staff around him a little more time to develop the team, and the Hoyas could certainly make a comeback.
It’d also keep Thompson Jr. happy, which is far more significant than it may seem. Many of his former players are still loyal to him, and any basketball program can benefit from a positive relationship with successful and wealthy alumni.
But this fanbase has grown tired of waiting. Three missed tournaments in four years doesn’t cut it for the once-proud program, especially since that streak came right after that humiliating loss to Florida Gulf Coast in 2013.
If Georgetown fires Thompson III, it will send a clear message: that the Hoyas are determined to return to the top, even at the expense of their age-old relationship with Thompson Jr. As for developing the talent already on board and soon to come, a young coach who has had success elsewhere can do that just as well.
These past two years aside, Georgetown is still an attractive job. The Hoyas play in the Big East — a basketball-centric conference that’s one of the best in the country. They also have a loyal fanbase, a proud tradition, and the finances to stay competitive through the changing landscape of college athletics. If they decided to make a change, they could bring in the right coach to rejuvenate the program.
Or the Hoyas could stick with Thompson. They would maintain their relationship with Thompson Jr., as well the alumni who remain close to him. They also know that keeping Thompson III might be the safe move in some ways. The Final Four run in 2007 shows he can have success. The program has stayed out of trouble, much like it did under his father, and it’s hard to deny the positive impact he has had on his players.
After the game Wednesday, star guard Rodney Pryor sat in the locker room rattling off the lessons he’s learned from Thompson.
“Patience, perseverance,” he said. “Just being able to handle different situations that life throws at you in the right manner.”
But by keeping Thompson III, Georgetown is also saying that it could accept the possibility that its best on-court days are in the past. Sure, the Hoyas might be good again at some point, but until then, they can keep a low profile and, in most years, be good enough to keep people interested.
That is the choice that the athletic department must make. The moment the buzzer sounded and Georgetown’s season ended, the university ran out of excuses to wait it out. It’s decision time: to accept where the program is and hope for the best, or to shake things up and potentially make some enemies.
That decision will determine their status in a conference working to reestablish its identity.