February 21, 2006
ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech's postseason hopes get dimmer by the day, even with the NIT's recent decision to open its field to teams with sub-.500 records.
The Yellow Jackets' Feb. 18 loss to Maryland assured them of a sub-.500 regular-season record; they are 10-14 with three games remaining. With only two victories over quality teams all year, heading into the Feb. 22 matchup against Duke, their resume is unlikely to woo even NIT officials.
The only tournament Tech's players and coaches are pointing to is the ACC's annual shindig, starting March 9 in Greensboro.
Bolstering their confidence is the improvement seen since coach Paul Hewitt shuffled his starting lineup, inserting defensive specialist Mario West, freshman shooter Lewis Clinch and senior forward Theodis Tarver into the first five.
The change gave Tech more energy and experience to start both halves. West and Tarver are the lone upperclassmen among the regular players, and Clinch gives the Yellow Jackets a second jump shooter on the floor.
Two of the demoted players responded well to coming off the bench. Zam Fredrick, who lost his spot to West, scored career highs in the first two games following the lineup change and is averaging 18 points since the move. Forward Jeremis Smith, who said he felt "worn down" prior to being removed from the lineup, has been fresher and even more aggressive than usual coming off the bench.
"I get to see what's going on in the game before I check in," Fredrick said. "I get to see what we need -- energy, maybe good defense, maybe a bucket or putting somebody in a position to score. When I see sitting on the bench what needs to be done, I go out there and try to do it right away and give us some energy off the bench."
The changes, which Hewitt initially cautioned would not be a "magic formula" for winning, have yet to turn around his team's season. Tech lost three of its four games after the change, although all four came down to the final minutes.
Instead of losing because of long scoring droughts -- that was the case during seven straight losses in January and early February -- Tech lacked offensive execution at crunchtime in its recent losses. The blame for that, Hewitt said, lies with the coaching staff.
HEWITT POINTS FINGER AT HIMSELF
Hewitt maintained throughout Tech's month-long, eight-game losing streak that the drought was his fault.
Early on, it seemed like strategic lip-service by the coach, to minimize the pressure on his young team. But the rash of close games gave the coach's claims credibility.
The Yellow Jackets have looked lost at the end of games, even the one they lost against N.C. State. They led that game by three points with the ball with less than a minute left, only to take a wild shot on their last possession and give State a chance to tie. Similar chaos ruled at the end of two other losses.
In an 80-79 loss to Florida State, Fredrick rushed up a shot with no rebounders in position in the final minute. Then Anthony Morrow stepped out of bounds while trying to dribble away from a defender.
In an 87-84 loss to Maryland, Fredrick pulled up for a jumper at the end of regulation. The shot was blocked, when he could have driven closer to the basket and taken an easier shot. Then, in overtime, Tech turned the ball over on two inbounds passes and in the closing seconds couldn't get Morrow open for a good shot.
The Maryland and North Carolina losses also underscored another problem Hewitt can be blamed for: timeout usage.
Hewitt has changed his timeout philosophy this season. In past years, with Jarrett Jack and Tony Akins playing point guard, Hewitt saved almost all of his timeouts for the closing minutes of games, to set up plays or make defensive adjustments.
But with Fredrick and West controlling the pace this season, Hewitt has become more liberal with his timeouts.
"This team has a tendency to try and retaliate rather than execute after the opponent makes a big play," Hewitt said. "When we had Jarrett out there, I knew he could get the crowd out of the game and get a good shot. That's not the case for this team right now."
That immaturity has handicapped the Yellow Jackets at the end of recent games. The Jackets used their last timeout against the Tar Heels with 12:22 remaining and couldn't regroup down the stretch, as Carolina increased its defensive pressure. Against Maryland, Tech didn't have a timeout for their last possession to set up a play.
"Not having a timeout, we really didn't understand what we wanted to do," Hewitt said. "I'd have to pin that one on myself. We've gone over it, but not enough to know how to attack it."
Hewitt can take all the blame he wants, and he probably deserves some of it. But he can't take any shots or make the perfect pass. The underlying problem is that Tech lacks a clutch player, a guy it can turn to down the stretch. The Yellow Jackets had three players who fit that mold last year: Jack, Will Bynum and B.J. Elder.
Tech has candidates this year in Morrow, Clinch and Fredrick. But Morrow struggles to create his own shot, and Clinch, a true freshman, is just too inexperienced. Fredrick has the mindset to be the go-to guy but lacks the savvy, not to mention that he's only 6-0 and rarely the quickest player on the court.
NEWCOMERS MUST HELP RECRUITING
Football coach Chan Gailey hired three assistant coaches known for their recruiting prowess, in the wake of Tech signing another lackluster class.
Some national recruiting services ranked the Yellow Jackets' class next-to-last in the ACC -- ahead of only Wake Forest -- for the second straight year.
Charles Kelly left his position as the defensive coordinator at Nicholls State to be Tech's special teams coach. His recruiting ties in Alabama should help the Jackets. Western Carolina defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is Tech's new director of player development and will oversee on-campus recruiting visits. The other hire was Memphis running backs coach Johnson "Jeep" Hunter.
The trio should give Georgia Tech five strong recruiters. Defensive line coach Giff Smith and running backs coach Curtis Modkins, who remain on Gailey's staff, have recruited many of the Yellow Jackets' top prospects in recent years.
Smith has been given the recruiting coordinator's title. His predecessor, David Wilson, was one of two coaches who recently resigned from the staff.
Georgia Tech desperately needs a strong staff of recruiters, especially considering the scholarship restrictions recently imposed on the program by the NCAA. Tech has been stripped of six grants for each of the next two seasons, because of its inadvertent use of 10 ineligible players over a seven-year period.
The Jackets signed just 15 players earlier this month as a result.