January 29, 2008
ATLANTA A Georgia Tech basketball team with tons of talent may have finally found some heart. That ought to worry the rest of the ACC heading into February, the season's pivotal month.
The Yellow Jackets' record was only 10-9 with their Jan. 27 victory over Virginia. But the win was their third in a row and their second in five days on the road. The two wins in ACC opponents' gyms were one more than they recorded over the previous two seasons combined.
The turnaround coach Paul Hewitt pledged following Tech's one-point loss to then top-ranked North Carolina on Jan. 16 appeared to be in full swing.
"This team is not far away," guard Matt Causey told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution following a Jan. 23 victory over N.C. State. "There's definitely time to make a run at it."
Plenty of time. The Virginia win moved the Yellow Jackets into a tie for fourth place in the log-jammed middle of the ACC standings. They had an open date on their schedule following UVa, giving them five days to prepare for Wake Forest on Feb. 2. They play Maryland the following Wednesday. The Demon Deacons and Terrapins both have struggled this season.
But the real reason for optimism on The Flats involves the how and the why, not the who.
Tech started the month with a three-game losing streak, capped by the heartbreaker against UNC. The Jackets had the ball with a chance to win in the closing seconds of that game, just like in December against then-No. 3 Kansas, and failed to close the game out. Forward Zach Peacock drove the ball to the basket in the end against the Tar Heels and double-clutched rather than go strong to the rim. He didn't get the foul call.
It was the kind of loss that can derail a season. It dropped Tech to 0-3 in the ACC, with two losses on its home floor. Hewitt showed signs of building frustration, lashing out at the media in a radio interview. As if scribes and talking heads had anything to do with his team's troubles.
But Hewitt also predicted a turnaround in his comments following the UNC loss. He essentially labeled the following game, against Virginia Tech, a make-or-break point for this season.
Such an ultimatum, however veiled, was dangerous for Hewitt to make to his team. Tech has not handled pressure situations well since Jarrett Jack, Will Bynum and B.J. Elder left following the 2005 season.
The 2006 Yellow Jackets lost 13 of their last 15 games to finish with an 11-17 record. Last year, the Jackets won two big games to close the regular season, only to lose their first-round games in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
This season, they hadn't won three games in a row prior to the recent run despite playing a manageable schedule. The talent was there, but the heart was not.
Then again, maybe it is.
VICTORIES: CAUSEY AND EFFECT?
Credit Causey, the journeyman point guard, for the resurgence. He scored 30 points against Virginia Tech, 18 against N.C. State and 18 versus Virginia.
All of his points against the Cavaliers came after halftime. Twelve came in an overtime period in which Tech scored 16 points total.
Causey's 66 points in the three games nearly doubled his scoring output for the entire season. But his determination and clutch-shot making pushed Tech past those opponents as much as his points.
Causey came into the season with plenty of fanfare, at least from his teammates. He impressed them in practice last season, when he had to redshirt after transferring from Division II North Georgia.
Causey starred in his two seasons at that school, averaging better than 20 points per game. He also had major college experience, after playing at Georgetown during his freshman year. He left the Hoyas when the school fired Craig Esherick, who favored an up-tempo playing style, and hired John Thompson III, a disciple of the Princeton offense.
Yet Causey appeared overmatched in Tech's games earlier this year. He hit a game-winning three-pointer against Notre Dame in November's Virgin Islands tournament, but that was one of his few highlights.
He never really looked comfortable on either offense or defense until the Virginia Tech game. He answered Hewitt's challenge following the UNC loss. He made seven three-pointers against the Hokies, and while his turnovers exceeded his assists in that game for only the fourth time all season and he failed to come up with a steal, he was the unquestioned emotional leader. And his teammates rallied around him.
Leadership long has been an issue at Tech. Mario West provided a spark last season, and senior forward Jeremis Smith is the player everyone looks up to this year because of his toughness.
But West exhausted his eligibility last year, and Smith is the leader-by-example type, not an outspoken motivator.
Causey has shown he can be all things to all his teammates. He leads by example, by voice and by force of will. And opponents tend to underestimate him: He stands 6-0, weighs 185 pounds and is quite possibly the least athletically imposing guard in the ACC.
"I can't explain it," teammate D'Andre Bell said of Causey following the N.C. State game. "We think he's crazy. He has a lot of (courage)."
The courage is contagious. Anthony Morrow made four clutch free throws to preserve the N.C. State win and two more against Virginia. Smith came through on defense late in all three games in the winning streak.
Tech is making plays to win games where once it played not to lose them.