- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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John Thompson III was once in Josh Pastner's shoes, taking over a brand-name program where the “Ghost of Coaches Past” still loomed large.
So he gets it.
He knows how Pastner feels as he toils under intense scrutiny, his team good but still not quite great.
And he feels … OK, the truth is that Thompson doesn’t feel much sympathy at all. Not even a little bit. Not even a smidgen in this time of holiday cheer.
“Yeah, look at the players he has,’’ Thompson said. “There’s no need for empathy. None.’’
In fact, if Thompson feels pity for anyone, it’s for himself. Georgetown plays the No. 17 Tigers on Thursday night (ESPN2/ESPN3, 8 ET), a game he scheduled long before the Big East schedule landed on his desk. That would be the schedule that has the ninth-ranked Hoyas heading to No. 20 Notre Dame on Dec. 29, hosting DePaul on Jan. 1 and traveling to St. John’s on Jan. 3, a three-games-in-six-days introductory swing into the joys that are the Big East.
“This game was one of those things that made a whole lot of sense in the summertime,’’ Thompson said. “Now, I’m not so sure about that.’’
What Thompson and the Hoyas can be sure about is that Memphis won’t go away without a fight. The Tigers are making a living off pulling miracles out of disasters, giving their fans and coach the sweats in the process.
The two parties, however, tend to see the results through different prisms.
Memphis fans look at overtime wins against Arkansas State and Austin Peay, as well as surviving for a five-point win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and see disaster waiting to strike.
Pastner, who maintains a perennial glass-half-full approach, looks at the same results and sees Memphis' 9-1 record and a reason to hope.
“We’ve been in multiple situations where we’ve been stuck in a forest without a compass, without a winter coat and with jaguars and coyotes who haven’t eaten,’’ Pastner said. “Instead of folding, we’ve found ways to beat a path and come to safety.’’
Pastner didn’t mention how his players would handle a feisty bulldog.
Memphis may have finally met its match when it comes to endgame heroics. Earlier this season, Pastner showed his team the final minutes of regulation from Georgetown’s overtime win against Missouri, a game in which the Hoyas trailed by five late in the game. It wasn’t for scouting purposes; it was to try to drill home to his team the idea that you never quit.
To their credit, the Tigers haven’t quit.
They just don’t seem to know how to get going. Memphis never plays better than when it is on the ropes, a survivalist mentality that may not work against Georgetown.
The Hoyas are who the Tigers want to be when they grow up: talented in the backcourt but blessed with experience.
“They’re like 18-year NBA veterans and we’re rookies,’’ Pastner said. “They’re the old Celtics compared to us.’’
Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark have done exactly as expected -- namely, carry Georgetown this season. They are the Hoyas’ top three scorers and the main reason the Georgetown offense is clicking at such a lethal rate.
Defying the oft-held misconception that the Princeton offense equates to slow-down offense, the Hoyas are averaging 80.5 points per game, but it’s how they’re scoring that is most impressive.
Georgetown ranks second in the nation in field goal percentage, connecting on a blistering 52 percent of its shots, and that guard trio, not surprisingly, is dishing out 10.7 assists per game.
“Am I happy? I’m not unhappy,’’ Thompson said. “The guys know we have a lot of room for improvement, but we’re doing OK. We’re about where I thought we’d be. The guys have been extremely focused.’’
And that, more vexing than anything, is what the Tigers have not been. Since Game 1, Pastner has implored his team to take better care of the basketball and to attack the boards. Their response: They’ve outrebounded four teams all season (Centenary, Northwestern State, Tennessee-Martin and A&M-Corpus Christi) and coughed up the ball 16 times a game.
It’s those little things that are letting lesser teams hang around and could equate to bigger problems against a good team like Georgetown.
“We can’t just be really good when our backs are to the wall,’’ Pastner said. “It’s not fair to me, to my heart. I think I’m averaging six ulcers per game.’’
Sorry, coach. You won’t get any pity from your opponent.
“I don’t care if they’re winning by two or by 50, they’re winning,’’ Thompson said. “They’re dangerous. They’re talented and they’re good.’’