ATLANTA Depth was thought to be one of Georgia Tech's strengths heading into the ACC basketball schedule.
Coach Paul Hewitt essentially worked with a 10-man rotation for much of December. He added D'Andre Bell to a guard/forward mix that already included Javaris Crittenton, Mario West, Lewis Clinch, Anthony Morrow, Thaddeus Young and Mouhammad Faye, while rotating Ra'Sean Dickey, Jeremis Smith and Zach Peacock in the post.
The Yellow Jackets' bench shortened on the eve of the de-facto ACC opener on Jan. 6 against Clemson, though, with Clinch leaving the team for the season because of a violation of school policy. Then the 75-74 loss to the Tigers revealed other blemishes in the playing rotation that likely will challenge the Jackets for the rest of the season.
Morrow is searching for his role on a team with a different character than the one he led in scoring a year ago. A back injury set Morrow back in the fall. He missed much of preseason practice because of it. He needed all of November and much of December to regain his conditioning.
He now considers himself back in playing shape, and his jump shot is back, too. But with Crittenton running a more up-tempo, slashing offense, Morrow seems content to stand on the perimeter and wait for a pass to shoot a three-pointer. During a three-game stretch in which he scored in double figures each time, 25 of his 31 shots were threes, and he failed to get to the foul line.
Faye, Clinch's replacement in the starting lineup, probably will be a work in progress all season. He committed four turnovers against Clemson's pressure and was not a factor on defense.
The upside on Faye is his dramatic game-by-game improvement. He seemed lost on the floor in the opening weeks of the season, quick to jack up shots on offense. Once he realized he didn't need to score to win playing time, he progressed gradually. He scored 27 points, recorded eight steals, passed out six assists, blocked three shots and committed just four turnovers in a three-game stretch in late December.
The asterisk with those performances involved the opponents: Troy, St. Francis and Winston-Salem State. Tech will need Faye to post impressive numbers against ACC competition by the end of the year.
Peacock has a fractured cheekbone. He is playing with the injury with the help of a face guard, but every ACC opponent knows how to get him off his game after the Clemson loss.
Clemson center Trevor Booker antagonized Peacock for several minutes during the game, even roughing him up a bit and jawing at him almost constantly. Peacock eventually snapped, elbowing Booker in the face as the two ran down the floor midway through the second half. Peacock was ejected.
"He reacted inappropriately," Hewitt said after the game. "You have to remember, he's playing with a fractured cheekbone. He gets tripped one time, takes a shot to the face another. You're going to react."
Meanwhile, Smith continues to draw attention from the officials for his aggressive play. Smith, who averaged 3.5 fouls per game and fouled out three times in ACC competition a year ago, got into foul trouble in the Yellow Jackets' first two conference games this season. He picked up his fourth foul against Clemson with 13:38 left.
The tough part for Smith is that changing the way he plays probably would severely limit his effectiveness. He is a scrappy, hard-nosed player whose 6-8, 235-pound frame rarely gives in contact situations. Most officials will whistle the guy left standing, not the one sprawled on the floor, for the foul.
Hewitt and the Jackets can take solace in the fact that all of these challenges can be overcome. Crittenton's play at point guard, Young's skills on the wing, West's and Bell's defense, and Dickey's talents underneath cannot be ignored.
Crittenton alone makes the Yellow Jackets a dangerous team. He averaged 14 points and passed out 23 assists versus four turnovers during the four-game stretch that ended with Clemson. He also showed a willingness to take and an ability to make big shots. He hit a running jumper over three defenders with six seconds left in the Clemson loss.
Hewitt finally is seeing the effort and commitment he expects from the team.
"The thing we talked about coming into this season was re-establishing how Georgia Tech has played over the years," Hewitt said. "I look at (the Clemson game) as a tremendous positive. This is the hardest we've played since (November). If it takes something like this to refocus us, and we play as hard as we did, we're going to win a lot of games in this league."
The Jackets need to post positive results soon. The Clemson loss dropped them to 0-2 in ACC play, with games against Duke, Florida State, at North Carolina, at Maryland, Virginia Tech and at Wake Forest by the end of January.
NFL FLIRTATION GOOD FOR TEAM?
The Miami Dolphins interviewed Georgia Tech football coach Chan Gailey for their head coaching job in early January.
The NFL interest quelled much of the complaining from fans and alumni over the way Gailey handled Tech's quarterback situation which exploded after backup Taylor Bennett threw for 300-plus yards in the Gator Bowl in place of ineligible senior Reggie Ball (academics) and showed both fans and recruits that their coach is indeed well-respected in the gridiron community.
None of that matters, of course, if Gailey is offered and takes the Miami job. He characterized his discussions with the Dolphins as an exchange of ideas he worked with the franchise in 2000 and 2001 and knows its inner workings as much as a job interview.
Gailey would be a good fit for the Dolphins, though. He made the playoffs in both of his seasons as the Dallas head coach, and Miami made the playoffs in both of his seasons as its offensive coordinator. The Dolphins haven't been back since. Plus, Gailey might be more inclined to work with the Dolphins' aging, salary-cap-restricted roster than some of the up-and-comers on their list.
Then again, Tech will return as many as 16 starters next season plus Bennett and is set to sign a highly regarded recruiting class. Obviously, Gailey will have plenty going for him either way.