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Coaching Search Profile: John Thompson III

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The former Georgetown coach’s name has emerged early in Vanderbilt’s basketball coaching search.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Georgetown Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

John Thompson III

Age: 53

Current job: Assistant coach, U.S. Men’s National Team (since 2017)

Previous jobs: Head coach, Georgetown (2004-17) and Princeton (2000-04); assistant coach, Princeton (1995-2000)

Career head coaching record: 346-193 (.641)

NCAA Tournament appearances: 10

NCAA Tournament record: 9-10

Adam Zagoria reported this morning that former Georgetown and Princeton head coach John Thompson III is the “early leader” to replace Bryce Drew as Vanderbilt’s head coach. Thompson last coached in college in the 2016-17 season. Since then, he’s been working with the U.S. Men’s National Team as an assistant coach for the qualifiers to the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

So: we have a candidate! Let’s analyze!

Why he’d be a good fit: Thompson has been the head coach at both Princeton and Georgetown, so needless to say he’s used to working at Vanderbilt-like places. Oh yeah, he’s also an African-American Princeton alum, which would play well among members of the Vanderbilt administration who care about such things (hi, Chancellor Zeppos.)

He’s also done quite well for himself as a head coach. In four years at Princeton, he posted a 68-42 record, won or shared the Ivy League title three times, and made the NCAA Tournament twice. He then moved to Georgetown, where his father had previously been the coach, and in 13 years there he made eight NCAA Tournaments. In his third year at Georgetown, he made the Final Four*.

*Georgetown’s 2007 tournament run should have ended in the Sweet 16, but was inexplicably extended by the referees’ failure to properly call Jeff Green for traveling. There, I said it.

Thompson is also an accomplished recruiter. While at Georgetown, he coached (by my count) 11 players who have since played in the NBA, including four first-round draft picks (Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe, and Otto Porter.) Granted, recruiting to Georgetown is not the same thing as recruiting to Vanderbilt: Georgetown is located in the recruiting hotbed of Washington D.C., it has a pretty substantial history in basketball, and its admissions office works more like Duke’s than Vanderbilt’s when it comes to basketball players.

In some ways, this would be a perfect fit for Vanderbilt. His overall record is undeniably good, and dealing with a university that cares a lot about academics is nothing new for him. We also might get Adam Sparks to ask him at his introductory press conference whether Jeff Green traveled. With that said...

What’s the problem here? Well, Thompson was fired by Georgetown after the 2016-17 season, and honestly, he probably should have been fired a year or two prior to that, but that was stifled by his father (who, obviously, is still a very important figure at Georgetown.) I asked Robert O’Neill, one of the site managers at SB Nation blog Big East Coast Bias (as well as Team Speed KIlls, by the way) for his thoughts on what went wrong at the end of Thompson’s Georgetown tenure and... well, his opinion doesn’t sound too good.

The Princeton offense hasn’t been good or sustainable in 15 years, particularly in today’s game, and Georgetown was supposed to be one of the Big East’s torch bearers and never met expectations after realignment. You probably won’t get another 0-18 finish with him but his ceiling would probably be around .500 in conference play in a good year and a first round tourney exit. But ALSO not having his dad constantly over his shoulder will probably be a blessing for him. He also coached at a premier university in one of the two or three most basketball rich areas in the country and whiffed on a ton of recruits (Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Melo Trimble.) So it’s a real mixed bag.

So... there you have it. And notice in the case for him, I said that his overall record is undeniably good. His recent record, though, is not. In his last four years at Georgetown, he went 69-62 and made just one NCAA Tournament. Also, his best work at Georgetown came more than a decade ago: after a Sweet 16 in 2006 and a Final Four** run in 2007, he never made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in his last ten years in Georgetown. And that was in spite of having four different teams that earned a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament. Oh yeah, and he lost in the first round of the tournament as both a 2- and 3-seed.

**Jeff Green Traveled.

Best work a decade ago? Diminishing returns in recent years? Talented teams that nonetheless make early exits in March? Dedication to an outdated offensive scheme? Where have I seen this before?

Oh, right.

Overall thoughts: There’s been a lot of negative reaction from the fan base to the possibility of John Thompson III, which is more than a little odd considering his overall record — I mean, this is a coach who’s been to a Final Four after all. But I get it. If three years of Bryce Drew has you nostalgic for Kevin Stallings — sure, you’d basically be getting a somewhat better version of that with John Thompson III. And it could be even better than that if he’s learned from his Georgetown tenure and is willing to modernize his offensive scheme.

This wouldn’t be a terrible hire, and I think Thompson has a relatively high floor. If you just want to get back to being a somewhat regular NCAA Tournament team, but little beyond that, this is fine. If you’re looking for more upside than that — this probably isn’t it. But we could definitely do worse.