Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I came to see Tommy, but I got JT III

I'd been looking forward to this day for the last week. With Harvard coming to town to face Georgetown at the Verizon Center (and because I'm privy to Hoya press credentials now that I cover them for the Express), I would finally get to talk with former Michigan coach Tommy Amaker for the first time since he was fired back on St. Patrick's Day 2007. Why do I remember the exact day? Well, I was too drunk to drive myself to his final press conference once word broke that he'd been axed.

So I sat court side as Georgetown handled the Crimson, 86-70, thanks in large part to Chris Wright's career-high 34 points, all the while passing the time until I finally got to ask Tommy some questions. But when Amaker got to the podium, I couldn't muster the courage to outright ask him about his Michigan days (especially because he didn't seem to recognize me). So the presser was relatively uneventful ... that is, until John Thompson III came in once Amaker was finished speaking.

With his father, legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson, Jr., standing in the back of the room, the man affectionately known as JT III around the D.C. area began pontificating about his team's bounce back win over an Ivy League opponent — GTown was upset by Old Dominion last Saturday. After answering a couple questions about an 11-0 run to end the first half that really was the difference in what had been a back-and-forth game, and another about Chris Wright's effort, I chimed in with a follow up about Wright ... and well, I'll just let the quotes speak to what happened next.

Me: What's been holding him back from converting like he did today?

JT III: Who?

Me: Chris, he went off for 34.

JT III: What's been holding him back?

Me: Holding him back from converting. Obviously, he's a talented player and he's been playing well...

JT III: I don't think anything's been holding him back. Who are you with?

Me: I'm with the Washington Post Express

JT III: Okay, so if you've been covering us, you've heard me say a million times ...

Me: I've been watching games. This is the first time I've seen a game live this year. I've watched most of your games on TV this year.

JT III: If you come in here, in this room, I've said we have a lot of people in that locker room. Everyone in there can score, they know that each other can score, they look for each other, so one night it's gonna be Chris, the next night it'll be Austin, the next night it'll be Greg, and there's also Jason in there. So I don't think anything has been holding him back. Opportunities were there for him today. They have done a terrific job — starting with him, starting with him — of making sure he's trying to get his teammates involved and running the team. So I don't think it's a question of him being held back, I just think the opportunities were there for him today and his teammates did a good job of recognizing that.

Me: Holding back was probably the wrong phrase, but he just hadn't gone off for 30 before, but yeah, thank you, coach

Welcome to the Georgetown beat, right? I would describe the interaction above as both uncomfortable and rewarding. Uncomfortable for obvious reasons — seeing as he questioned my credentials — and rewarding because I learned a whole lot about Georgetown and JT III just from that one exchange.

Personally, I thought it was a pretty valid question considering Wright shattered his career high by nine points and came into the game averaging 11.7 points per contest. He was also averaging 8.5 shot attempts per game, but finished today 13-of-21 from the floor. Like I said to JT III, maybe I could have used a better phrase than "holding back", but if 34 points on 13 more shot attempts than usual doesn't say breakout game, then I'm not sure what that means anymore. And if something is considered a break out game, doesn't that infer there was something holding you back originally?

But it gets to the nitty gritty of what Georgetown's season hinges on. They've got a collection of talent that can stack up against just about anybody in the country with players like Wright, O'Connell grad Jason Clark (who I met last year at a high school basketball game and came off as one of the nicest athletes I've ever been around) and future NBA stud Greg Monroe. The question, though, is whether John Thompson III's Princeton-style offense will help or harm them come tournament time.

Now don't get me wrong, I love the Princeton offense. But it's meant to be run at schools like Princeton, as a way of overcoming a talent differential by cutting down on possessions and relying on backdoor cuts to produce layups and wide open looks from 3-point range when the defense collapses on those backdoor cuts. My belief — and I know some in the media feel this way and I'm willing to bet there are some GTown fans who agree — is that the Hoyas shouldn't be so conservative and would be better served adjusting the offense to fit its uber-talented personnel.

And my guess is, John Thompson III has heard some of these critics. Just look at how defensive he got about me mentioning the phrase "holding back" concerning Chris Wright. Now, let's be real here, he's the one who has led a team to the Final Four. I'm just some 20-something novice reporter who has seen his team play live once this year. Truth be told, slowing down the pace of a game is very effective, especially in high pressure situations like the NCAA Tournament. It cuts down on potential turnovers and forces the opposing team to play defense the entire 40 minutes. But to me, there's a reason why Eddie Jordan and the 76ers are the only team in the NBA that run anything remotely resembling a Princeton offense. It's because when you have talent, you take advantage of it by creating situations for your best players to exploit the defense.

As JT III said to me, "Everyone in there can score," so why wouldn't you run an offense that allows everyone the "opportunities" to do that all the time. I think the most glaring stat from this relatively meaningless Harvard game was the fact that today was the first time this season Greg Monroe (16 points, 16 rebounds), Chris Wright, and Austin Freeman (21 points) all scored more than 11 points in the same game. It begs the questions, what's been holding them back from replicating that all season long? Hehe

POSTSCRIPT: Looking back on the situation, I probably should have re-phrased the question as "Why was Chris Wright so effective today," but at the time, I also didn't think my original question would cause such a fuss.

And back to Tommy for a second ... he's got a pretty good squad this year, one that's 7-3 after today's loss, but a favorite alongside Cornell heading into the Ivy League season. Last week the Crimson beat Boston College and nearly upset UCONN. Watching them play, I was staring intently at Amaker, trying to notice if he still stomped his feet during every defensive possessions (not as much anymore) or if he still ran the twirly finger offense (yes, he does, but with not as much twirling of the finger and many fewer instances of tall, uncoordinated white guys panicking with the ball in their hands at the top of the key with the shot clock running down).

The most fascinating thing about Harvard's team, though, is its best player, 6-foot-3 senior guard Jeremy Lin. He's an Asian American from Palo Alto who can straight ball. He's been getting a decent amount of press recently after putting up 30 against UCONN and 25 against Boston College in consecutive games. He put up 15 points today. He's also being mentioned as a potential sleeper in the NBA Draft. Lin would be the first player from Harvard to make it to the league since 1953.

Let me give you a formal introduction: Jeremy Lin, this is everyone. Everyone, this is Jeremy Lin.

One thing I did notice about Amaker, though, is that he's cut down on the amount of times he answers a reporter's question by responding with "Certainly" or "Obviously" before rehashing exactly what the reporter had just asked of him. By my count he only did it three times this afternoon, but of course, his press conference started like this after someone asked what happened to his team during Georgetown's 11-0 run to end the first half:

"Well, certainly the game got away from us at the end of the first half. But I think we really battled, scrapped, and clawed. We were, obviously, never able to recover from it."

Gotta love Tommy.

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