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Hoops Program Faces Troubling Scenario

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

May 5, 2003 ATLANTA — What had been a very quiet offseason for Georgia Tech's basketball program turned into anything but in late April and early May, and it could get a whole lot more interesting in the next few weeks. First, top Tech assistant Dean Keener met with officials from South Florida and East Tennessee State. He was a finalist for the ETSU job, which went to former Alabama-Birmingham coach Murry Bartow. Western Michigan coach Robert McCullum got the job at South Florida. Those inquiries marked the first time Keener, who joined the Yellow Jackets with Paul Hewitt in 2000, had interviewed for a top job.

Keener very likely could have secured a head coaching position this offseason, had he been willing to head to a lower Division I school then South Florida or ETSU. But as he told the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, “I'm not looking for any job, I'm looking for the right job.”

ETSU seemed a good fit for Keener, given his Southern Conference ties as a player at Davidson and his recruiting knowledge of the Southeast. It likely won't be long until Keener gets his shot, particularly if the Yellow Jackets are as good next season as many experts expect them to be.

That also would bode well for the prospects of Hewitt, whose well-earned reputation remains that of an up-and-coming coach despite a mediocre (48-44 overall, 22-26 ACC) three-year record in Atlanta.

Hewitt's name recently surfaced on internet message boards and later in media reports from coast to coast, when he was mentioned among the candidates to replace Bill Self at Illinois after Marquette's Tom Crean pulled out of the running. Hewitt quickly told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he had no interest in the job, but that he had been contacted through unofficial means to gauge his potential interest in the position. The Illini ultimately hired Southern Illinois coach Bruce Weber, an 18-year assistant under Gene Keady at Purdue whose head coaching resume (103-54 in five years with the Salukis) looked very similar to Hewitt's accomplishments in three seasons at Siena.

Hewitt, having just completed his third season with the Yellow Jackets, would seem an unlikely candidate for schools outside the East Coast. Except for one season at Southern Cal as a graduate assistant, he has spent his entire basketball career — playing and coaching — on the East Coast. His affection for the Big East and Georgetown are well-known, and he certainly enjoys working in the prestigious ACC.

Even without the return of everyone from last year's young team — the coach may lose the last two ACC rookies of the year, one unexpectedly, in the span of the next several weeks — now would seem an unlikely time for Hewitt to move on. If rising sophomore Chris Bosh somehow uses Tim Duncan-like logic to resist the big money of the NBA for at least one more year, the Yellow Jackets have a chance to be the best Georgia Tech team since Bobby Cremins' 1995-96 version won the ACC regular season and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

In addition, Hewitt has an excellent chance of amassing a top-notch recruiting class for 2004-05, to complement what should still be a strong nucleus. As a young coach (he turned 40 on May 4) with a young and exciting team, his stock should soar again after next season, provided the team reaches the lofty expectations that surround it.

Bosh, Nelson Decisions Looming

Much of that depends on Bosh's return, a topic that is keeping Tech fans awake late at night. Bosh and the coaching staff have been extremely quiet on his status since the season-ending loss to Texas Tech in the NIT.

At the end of the season, Bosh hinted that he'd probably return for his sophomore season. His comments after the ACC Tournament and during Tech's NIT run indicated he wanted at least one more chance at playing in the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, he was careful not to make any wide-ranging declarations. He never once said, “I'm coming back” or “I'm not coming back.” He consistently said his decision would be made after the season and before the NBA's May 12 deadline.

Now comes the part that surely keeps Hewitt, as well as many Tech fans, awake late at night. Bosh is off-campus now, with final exams complete, and all indications are that his camp is torn, with powerful people surrounding him arguing on both sides of the issue. According to sources contacted by the Sports Journal in early May, Bosh was leaning toward putting his name into the draft but not hiring an agent, which would leave some extra time (until June 19) for him to change his mind.

Bosh is a smart kid who has said in the past that this would be his decision when it was all said and done. However, Tech's coaches knew that once he got off-campus between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of summer school — Bosh did sign up for classes in the first summer session, by the way — that's when those most interested in his turning pro would pounce. They were right, as Bosh told friends in early May that his “head was spinning” with information recently presented to him.

On the other hand, Bosh is under no intense personal or financial pressure to turn pro this season. His mom, in particular, often has pushed education in the past, and Chris is an excellent student with strong study habits. Bosh said last year that while his mother didn't make the decision for him to attend Tech, she make it clear that she was extremely happy with it.

Nevertheless, the lure of being a top-10 draft pick — and it's difficult to find anyone of importance who isn't projecting him to go that high — also is intriguing. Some national basketball analysts, after an entire season of saying Bosh would return to Tech for his sophomore season, recently began going on radio shows and internet sites to predict just the opposite result.

The feeling among Tech fans recently changed in much the same way. That shift gained momentum after whispers that Bosh told friends he wanted to get information on his status from NBA teams and scouts, rather than second-hand. He is not expected to participate in pre-draft workouts, also in an attempt to preserve his amateur status.

No matter what happens with Bosh, Tech can't say it wasn't prepared. There are only so many skilled 6-10 athletes on the planet, and from the moment Bosh signed with the Yellow Jackets out of high school, the coaches understood his obvious pro potential and the possibility that Atlanta would be a one- or two-year layover in the end.

The real shocker came later in the April-May signing period, when the coaching staff approved a limited release for forward Ed Nelson, the 2002 ACC rookie of the year. According to sources close to the team, Nelson seemed happy during the season, and many in the program were surprised when he asked for a release.

Despite widespread perceptions to the contrary, Nelson did not lose significant minutes, points or rebounds after the arrival of Bosh. (His freshman and sophomore numbers were almost identical in those categories.) Nelson, who played high school ball in Florida but has a lot of family in the New England region, is looking into transferring to Connecticut, Massachusetts or Boston College.

Nelson has been full of smiles during his stay in Atlanta, and he is in good academic standing with the university, but he reportedly has been under increasing family pressure to consider a move. Some of those around him — some of the same folks who often speak, sometimes with exaggeration, of his pro potential — have not been happy with the appearance that Bosh received the bulk of the attention, on the court and off, last year.

While the Nelson situation was a surprise, Tech coaches obviously saw something coming, although perhaps too late. Despite not having any scholarships available, Hewitt and his assistants switched their recruiting focus about a month ago, renewing their interest in unsigned post players from the high school, junior college and international ranks. As is the case every year at this time, of course, the pickings were very slim.

Tech: Still Pro-Expansion, But…

Tech athletic director Dave Braine has long been a proponent of ACC expansion, taking up the banner even when it wasn't a hot topic. During his radio show before football games this season, expansion regularly was topic No. 1 for Braine and his guests, a population that often included other ACC administrators.

Interestingly, when expansion talks gained momentum in April, Braine chose to take a step back. He reiterated that Tech supports expansion but left the details to others, perhaps in deference to a league-wide request for restraint from ACC commissioner John Swofford.

But would Tech really gain from expansion?

Surely, the monetary gains of a football championship game, one of Braine's biggest points in favor of expansion, would help everyone in the ACC. The addition of Miami, Syracuse and Boston College or Virginia Tech also would generate a larger television deal, no doubt. But would the Tech athletic program, particularly the football team, benefit from the increased competition?

Tech is having enough trouble competing with the middle tier of the ACC — Clemson, Virginia, N.C. State, North Carolina and Maryland — right now. Consider that Miami and perhaps Virginia Tech probably would jump into the top tier of the ACC standings, and Syracuse and Boston College likely would fall into the middle. How far would Tech fall?

The Yellow Jackets have gone at least 4-4 in the ACC every year since 1994. But one proposed conference realignment would place Tech in a South Division with Clemson, Florida State, Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech, thus keeping all the North Carolina schools in one division. If that breakdown ever becomes a reality, a .500 league record for the Yellow Jackets would be an accomplishment, and that's not a scenario that bodes well for the revenue streams and attendance figures needed for a bright future in newly renovated Bobby Dodd Stadium.