Dress rehearsal, Hoya-style
There are a couple of major reasons why Thompson's teams specialize in halting starts. First, the Princeton-based offense is reliant on such a combination of hard work (hard cuts, constant motion), timing and execution, that it is always going to look worse than an isolation-based offense at the beginning of the season. And, in theory, it's always going to look better than an isolation-based system at the end of the season. "One clunky piece can make our system look pretty bad," Thompson said. "I don't think its attributable to youth or missing parts. I think and I hope that it's just early, because we've started a little ugly offensively every year. Our offensive flow has picked up significantly every season, and I'm hopeful and confident that will happen again." The second reason (related to the first) that Thompson's teams struggle early is his near-total focus on the conference season. After learning his trade at Princeton in a conference where the only NCAA tournament bid goes to the league's regular-season champion, Thompson places a heavier emphasis on conference games than most coaches. In fact, he's so concerned about preparing his team for Big East play that he almost seems to use the nonconference slate as an experimental phase. He'd rather risk losing to Alabama with sophomore reserve center Vernon Macklin playing extensive minutes and Jeremiah Rivers running the point in the clutch than crush the Tide by demanding that senior guard Jon Wallace pound the ball inside to center Roy Hibbert for 40 minutes.
Because he knows the Hoyas will need more weapons than Hibbert to reach San Antonio. And he chooses the nonconference slate, a time he actually refers to as the "preseason" to develop those weapons. "Roy isn't getting as many touches as he's going to get as the season progresses, and some of that is by design," Thompson said. "We're playing big chunks of time without Roy out there because I want to see how some of these other guys are going to react. I want to see Vernon [Macklin] grow up and get Austin [Freeman] and Chris [Wright] prepared for league play. "I'm sacrificing some style points to do what I think is best for our team." Nobody will remember the somewhat ugly beginning if Thompson can produce his customarily masterful conclusion.