January 15, 2008
ATLANTA Paul Hewitt claims that his Georgia Tech basketball team is as "close to turning this thing around and playing some good basketball as we've been at any point this year."
The Yellow Jackets had better be real close, or their year will be over by Groundhog Day, at least from a postseason standpoint.
The Jackets headed into the first full week of ACC play with a losing record (7-8) and winless in the ACC (0-2). Their non-league losses included stumbles against UNC Greensboro, Winthrop and Georgia.
Their other three non-conference defeats weren't so egregious. They played three top-15 teams Kansas, Indiana and Vanderbilt tough before losing.
"Am I disappointed with our record? Yeah, I am," Hewitt said. "Discouraged? Not even close."
That said, Tech faces a January gauntlet in the ACC that could put them deep in the league's cellar. Tech lost at Miami on Jan. 12 and faces top-ranked North Carolina and Virginia Tech at home and road games against N.C. State and Virginia before the month is out.
The Jackets will be underdogs in all but probably the Virginia Tech game, and they're still trying to change their losing ways on the road. They've won on an opponent's home floor just twice since the start of the 2005-06 season.
While Hewitt says a turnaround is imminent, the numbers don't support his claim. Tech is the ACC's worst defensive team statistically and among the worst in rebounding.
Hewitt studies the numbers as much as anyone but says they are misleading. His team has struggled with what he calls "live-ball turnovers" giveaways via bad passes or poor ball-handling that don't result in a stoppage of play which opponents easily convert into points. Miami scored 24 points off Tech turnovers in a recent game and rallied from a 12-point, first-half deficit to win by 10.
"Live-ball turnovers will kill you because you can't defend them," Hewitt said. "It's the equivalent of a quarterback throwing an interception on an out pattern that's returned for a touchdown. People just look at the score and say, Boy, you're not playing any defense.' But we are."
The main reason for Hewitt's continued optimism is the improvement of true freshman point guard Maurice Miller.
Miller struggled with the requisite college basketball learning curve earlier this season, which was compounded by a back injury. In his first six games, he averaged four points, three assists and three turnovers. He was prone to throw the ball away in transition.
But in his last five games leading up to a scoreless effort against Miami, he averaged double figures in scoring and committed a total of three turnovers.
Hewitt blames his coaching decision not to play Miller more in the second half against Florida State for that two-point loss.
Miller played 24 or more minutes in the three games following the FSU loss and scored 13 or more points in two of them.
Miller's fellow freshman, forward Gani Lawal, also needs to get more involved for the Jackets, Hewitt said. Lawal shot 70 percent from the floor over a 10-game span but averaged fewer than five shots per game.
"We're to the point now," Hewitt said, "in tight spots you're going to see us start throwing him the ball more."
DETAILS STRESSED BUT IGNORED
The Yellow Jackets' most disturbing trend involves mental breakdowns.
Hewitt is a detail-oriented coach. His team spends a large portion of its practice time on opponent scouting reports, and Hewitt's staff prepares DVDs full of video cut-ups of opponent sets and plays that the players can take with them and study in their apartments or on their laptop computers.
Yet this team suffers lapses in concentration during games. The most glaring example came during a loss to Indiana in late November, when the Tech guards defended their counterparts tightly on the perimeter. The scouting report said that IU's guards were better penetrators than shooters, and by guarding them closely outside, Tech played right into the Hoosiers' strengths.
The TV commentators picked up on the trend and pointed it out repeatedly.
"Let's just say there have been some mental breakdowns from time to time," Hewitt said. "But it's getting better. We could play a little greater attention to detail."
That's partially the result of a written test Hewitt gave his players during a particularly sloppy run in December. The exam got the players' attention, but they still suffer relapses. Veteran guard Lewis Clinch cited a failure to follow the game plan against Georgia for a Jan. 9 loss.
"When you don't follow the game plan, you come up short," Clinch said. "That's been the whole season."
The frustration is starting to come to a head, although senior forward Jeremis Smith said he and his teammates are failing to channel their anxious energy into their play.
"I told (my teammates) sometimes it seems like Coach Hewitt wants these wins more than we do," Smith told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "You see him on the sideline fired up, yelling at referees, yelling at us, and it's about time that the fire he shows on the court is lit in our behinds. We have to use the fuel from coach to get ignited."
FAYE DIDN'T MATCH DESCRIPTION
Mouhammad Faye turned out to be an urban legend, after all.
Faye, a 6-10 swingman from Senegal, drew raves from teammates, coaches and others with access to Tech practices from the day he joined the team in 2005. Tech play-by-play man Wes Durham dubbed the lanky, athletic sharpshooter the "International Man of Mystery."
Faye had to sit out his first year because of problems with the NCAA Clearinghouse. He speaks multiple languages and is a strong student, but the NCAA struggled with his transcript, which included school work completed in his native country.
Once cleared to play, Faye's practice exploits never translated to games. He often looked lost or overmatched on the floor and never played consistent minutes as a result. He played sparingly in Tech's early season games and left the team midway through December.
Earlier this month, he announced his plans to transfer. He's yet to announce where, although Hewitt said Faye will have plenty of options.