March 25, 2008
ATLANTA In recent years at Georgia Tech, looking ahead to the next season has been almost as painful as looking back at the one just completed.
Not this spring, though. This time, the Yellow Jackets pretty much know whom they will have back this fall, and it's reason for at least some hope.
Unlike the last three offseasons, there will be no early NBA draft entrants (see Jarrett Jack in 2005, and Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young in 2007), no pending transfers of major contributors (see Zam Fredrick in 2006) and, perhaps most importantly, no hand-wringing over inexperience at point guard.
Tech loses power forward Jeremis Smith, wing Anthony Morrow and point guard Matt Causey. All three exhausted their eligibility with the Jackets' loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals.
Coach Paul Hewitt will return a team complete with a point guard, Maurice Miller, who played solidly down the stretch, a defensive stopper in swingman D'Andre Bell, and a formidable front line featuring banger Zack Peacock, scorer Gani Lawal and possibly fifth-year senior center Ra'Sean Dickey, who redshirted in 2007-08 because of academic issues.
Plus, Hewitt will add one of the nation's top high school players, 6-4 combo guard Iman Shumpert.
The Jackets finished up a disappointing 15-17 season with the ACC tournament loss to Duke. They did play one of the nation's toughest schedules, according to the Ratings Percentage Index and statistical guru Jeff Sagarin, and finished a respectable 7-9 in the ACC.
Tech also lost several close games. The team's six home conference losses were by a combined eight points.
An easier non-conference schedule, plus the experience from all the close games, should help Tech next season.
Looking back, Smith and Morrow arrived at Tech in the wake of the team's Final Four run. They made clear that they planned to take the team there again.
It never happened. In fact, the Jackets missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the three years in which they were major contributors. Tech lost in the first round in the other year.
Yet each left his mark on the program and the ACC.
Smith will be remembered for his toughness and effort for years to come. Two game officials and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sought him out to share hugs, handshakes and kind words after Tech's loss in Charlotte ended his career.
"What you saw out there was four years of relationships, four years of fighting through adversity, four years of success and failure and everything in between," Smith said. "That's what life is all about, right? That's what was so emotional about it."
Morrow ended his career as one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the ACC. He made more than 250 three-pointers in his career.
Smith and Morrow also grew into leaders. Hewitt credited the duo for infusing a positive attitude in the team during their tumultuous senior season.
"Jeremis and Anthony deserve a lot of credit for holding these guys together through all those close losses," Hewitt said. "We got a lot out of this team. They played really well, and I think everybody saw down the stretch that they played their best basketball of the season."
JOHNSON LOOKS FOR TOUGHNESS
Football coach Paul Johnson is used to coaching disciplined kids with chips on their shoulders because they were overlooked by major college programs.
That attitude, obvious during Johnson's tenures at Navy and Georgia Southern, is something he wants from his more heavily recruited players, too.
"I'd like to see us get a little tougher mentally," Johnson said. "I want to see guys compete. I've been pleased with our guys so far in morning conditioning, with some aspects of that, but when I watch the tape and assess the program, that's one area I think we need to improve on.
"We need to understand what it takes to get to the next level. It's not always physical toughness. I'm talking about being able to mentally fight through when things go bad."
Tech opened spring practice March 24. And if offseason conditioning is any indication, a grueling month lies ahead. The winter workouts began at 6 a.m. and were high-intensity. Veteran offensive lineman Andrew Gardner called the sessions the hardest he'd ever participated in.
Johnson's style contrasts sharply with his predecessor, Chan Gailey. Whereas Johnson's background lies with what many would consider college football's lesser levels, including Division I-AA, Gailey came to Tech after nearly two decades in the NFL.
Gailey brought a professional approach as a result. NFL players motivate themselves, to a large extent, to reach the goals set by the coaching staff. Individual accountability is not so much stressed as understood.
Johnson is more of a drill sergeant. He was known during his Georgia Southern days to start practice over if he found effort lacking even if the team was late in the practice session. Johnson telling a player to rest is more an insult than a reprieve.
Past performance suggests that Tech could use more toughness. Gailey's teams were notorious for losing games in which they were favored. Adversity was not something they handled well routinely.
Tech lost 13 starters from last year's team, including tailback Tashard Choice, quarterback Taylor Bennett, linebackers Philip Wheeler and Gary Guyton, and safeties Djay Jones and Jamal Lewis. Ray Guy Award winner Durant Brooks and kicker Travis Bell exhausted their eligibility last fall as well.
Johnson can build around veteran offensive and defensive lines, though. And he has two promising players at the two most important positions in an option offense: tailback Jonathan Dwyer, who impressed in relief of Choice last fall, and multi-threat quarterback Josh Nesbitt.
The spring game is scheduled for April 19.