Thompson down, out for good? Hoyas may miss NCAA tourney


WASHINGTON -- Georgetown coach John Thompson has become oddly resigned to his team's free fall from its place among college basketball's elite.

The Hoyas, ranked a teetering No. 10 two months ago, have lost eight of their last 10 games and stumbled to the depths of the Big East Conference.

Only a miracle finish will prevent Thompson from missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years.

Perhaps Thompson saw it coming. Or perhaps his lack of distress is a sign of a creeping complacency, a weariness of the non-teaching aspects of the sport for a wealthy man who has done it all. That's the talk around the nation's capital, where Georgetown used to be second in popularity to the Redskins. The Hoyas haven't sold out a game all season.

"Going to the NCAA Tournament is getting a little old for me," said Thompson, 52, whose salary and Nike contract are said to add up to more than $400,000. "I want to make sure when this group gets there they have a chance to win it. We feel this is a long-term investment. Whatever we get now, we'll take."

Thompson's team is young (two juniors and three freshmen start) and can't shoot (the Hoyas are shooting 39 percent and averaging 61 points in Big East games).

Freshman big man Othella Harrington is a probable Big East rookie of the year and a future NBA lottery pick. Freshman Duane Spencer is another gem. Philadelphia high school star Rasheed Wallace has Georgetown on his list of four finalists. The future looks much brighter than the present.

But Georgetown's slide this year is just part of a continuum. There are no seniors because the four freshmen of 1989 transferred to other schools, and since then other players also have fled Thompson's rigid, secretive system. Georgetown has not advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 1989. The Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo years did not produce a return to the Final Four.

Outwardly at least, it seems Thompson has lost some of his drive. His friends in the coaching profession say the fire inside him went out after he failed to win a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics and was heavily criticized for overemphasis on defense.

He often sits on the sidelines these days, rather than pacing in bearish strides, slapping his white towel and fussing at his players in that low rumbling voice that makes everyone stop and listen.

The calm approach may be his way of dealing with his underclassmen. He says he still gets the knots he used to get when he was going after the 1984 NCAA title.

"It is agony," he said. "The kids are going through the maturing process, and that's a very agonizing process. But it's also very challenging."

Thompson isn't apologizing for this season, or the past few. In 21 years at Georgetown he has a 477-176 record and 97 percent graduation rate. He feels he has earned certain privileges.

"I've passed the point where I'm looking for approval or looking to see where I'm rated in the mind of somebody who doesn't even know what the hell is going on," he said.

Thompson no longer has the patience to court egoistical teen-agers either. There's the story about Thompson eliminating recruit who ordered his mother to bring him a glass of milk during a Thompson visit.

"You'd have to be a fool to enjoy running around the country after 17-year-olds," he said. "I don't have time for jackasses anymore."

He wants polite men who wear coats and ties on team trips and keep in close touch with academic adviser Mary Fenlon, who is always on the bench during games.

In return, if the players can make it through what Thompson calls "the hardening process" at Georgetown, they get a coach of uncompromising loyalty.

After Georgetown's loss at Boston College on Jan. 30, Thompson had the team bus detoured to the county jail. He went inside to visit former Hoya Charles Smith, who is serving time for a hit-and-run conviction.

Perhaps Thompson has lost some of his tolerance for the peripheral nuisances of the job. Perhaps losing doesn't sting him the way it did when he was 40.

"We've learned a lot about adversity this year," he said.

Adversity is real life. Perhaps, for Thompson the teacher, that lesson is more important than the fake hyperbole of March Madness.

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