CHAMPAIGN - He learned the game from two Hall of Famers.
His father, John Thompson Jr., was the tough-minded leader of the Georgetown Hoyas who became known for his ability to develop NBA-caliber big men like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Othella Harrington and Dikembe Mutombo.
His mentor was Pete Carril, whose unique offensive style helped earn 11 NCAA Tournament berths during his 29 seasons as head coach at Princeton.
But when he comes to the Assembly Hall tonight, John Thompson III arrives as his own man, a 39-year-old coach on the rise who has gleaned bits and pieces of basketball philosophy from each of his iconic influences.
In a nationally televised matchup that stands as the best nonconference home game of the season, Illinois takes on a Georgetown team that could well be the school's best in the last five years.
Led by a front line that measures 6-9, 6-9 and 7-foot-2, the Hoyas have the size up front to conjure images of a team Thompson's father might have coached, and uses the pass-weave-cut offense that Carril taught so effectively at Princeton.
It forced Illinois to roll the dice that it could beat Arkansas-Little Rock without benefit of a practice day (a mission Illinois carried out Monday night) so it could have two full days of practice to prepare for this unique Georgetown offense.
"We will show film and let them see what they do, then have a walkthrough (Tuesday), then do drills that simulate some of the things they do (Wednesday)," Illini coach Bruce Weber said. "We need to show them the backcuts, the double backcuts, the ball screens. It's a pretty complicated system.
"The one thing we can't do is freeze on defense. We have to play hard and be aggressive. If they (beat) you, they beat you. I am hoping our pressure can disrupt them a little bit, and that the crowd will get into it."
Weber has the advantage of having Northwestern to prepare for twice a season. Northwestern is coached by Bill Carmody, who was a longtime assistant coach at Princeton and has replicated the Carril offense.
Thompson III also was an assistant under Carril before taking over at Princeton's head coach for four seasons prior to being named Georgetown's head coach last season.
Each time Weber prepares for a Princeton-like look, he claims to learn a little more about the nuances and subtleties of the offense.
Weber likes to tell the story of his first-time preparation for Northwestern three seasons ago. Chris Lowery, now the head coach at Southern Illinois, was in charge of putting together the Illini scouting report. Weber received a phone call late one night before the Northwestern game with Lowery frantically confessing, 'Coach, I can't figure out what they're doing. I just can't do it."
Weber told Lowery to relax, that they'd tackle it as a staff and consult with other head coaches who had discovered success defending the offense.
"A couple years ago we had no idea how to defend it," Weber said this week. "But we've gotten better and better. There are idiosyncrasies. If we can get guys into the right spots, it helps. Now, can we transfer that to our kids in two days?
"And Georgetown is different than pure Princeton because they have such size. They have tweaked it a little bit because of (Roy) Hibbert, (Jeff) Green and (Brandon) Bowman. They'll run their Princeton stuff for 15 or 20 seconds and if they don't get anything, they get Hibbert down to the low block."
Hibbert is a 7-foot-2, 283-pound sophomore who has emerged as Georgetown's leading scorer despite playing just 21 minutes a game. Green and Bowman are athletic 6-9 forwards. So Illinois has a ton of size to contend with.
But when Hibbert hits the bench, Georgetown turns to a smaller lineup that creates its own problems.
"If you watch film of their Oregon game (one Georgetown won 71-57 at Oregon), their guards stepped up. Ashanti Cook had a bunch of 3s in the first half. Darrel Owens stepped up. Those guys are the X factors. When they lost to Vanderbilt, Cook was 0-for-4. When they beat Oregon, he made 3s."
Thompson actually said he views his offense and Weber's offense as kissin' cousins.
"It's very similar to how Illinois plays," he said. "You have motion. You have movement. You have skilled guys out there making reads and decisions. That's the strength of what we try to do.
"What we do is different from what Northwestern does, what Princeton does. The similarity is the motion and movement and it's not that dissimilar to what (Illinois) does."
Mark Tupper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.