March 1, 2004 ATLANTA This should be a time of universal praise for Paul Hewitt. He's rebuilt the Georgia Tech basketball program admirably, bringing in talented players capable of winning 20 games for the first time in nearly a decade and perhaps positioning the Yellow Jackets for a sustained run at the upper echelon of the ACC. But Hewitt's continuing complaints about officials this season could override the Yellow Jackets' play on the court if they don't slow down soon. A long-time proponent of getting officials out from their conference affiliations and installing them under a national review and scheduling structure, Hewitt has been more public with his critiques this year.
It began early in the season, with Hewitt working officials both during the game and through the media about the treatment of center Luke Schenscher. The 7-1 junior, Hewitt complained, was not being respected by officials, who allowed him to be pushed around but called quick fouls when he returned in kind. Hewitt aired his concerns at every possible turn, lobbying for Schenscher whenever he could and to anyone who would listen.
In some ways, the complaining worked. The officiating on Schenscher became more consistent throughout the season. That doesn't mean he's immune to foul calls, but he seems to be getting even-handed treatment.
Then came Hewitt's well-publicized spat with Ted Valentine, stemming from Tech's games with Georgia and Maryland. During the Georgia game, Valentine threatened Hewitt. The coach has tried to diffuse the perception of a conflict with Valentine, routinely calling him a good referee and saying he has no problem with him.
Valentine has a reputation as a showboat and inspires fans' contempt like few others. After the game with Maryland, in which Valentine assessed Hewitt a technical and had a scene at the end of the first half where he refused to talk with the coach, Valentine did not work a Tech game for a while. The absence of Valentine from Tech games prompted many to think that Hewitt had asked that Valentine be removed from the Yellow Jackets' schedule, something coaches throughout the conference are allowed to request. But Hewitt, despite the flare-ups, did not make that request, and Valentine has worked Tech games since.
As the Yellow Jackets moved through the conference slate, Hewitt again found cause for complaint, arguing that officials were not allowing his team to play its style of defense. In particular, junior forward Isma'il Muhammad the team's toughest on-ball defender fouled out of three consecutive games. He played just 11 and 13 minutes in the last two of those, both Tech losses.
Hewitt complained that officials must let his team defend after a loss to Wake Forest. During that game, the crew seemed overmatched for the intensity of the contest. Tom Eades, Mike Eades and Tony Greene struggled to keep control, even miscalling a couple of fouls on the wrong player and struggling to sort out an intentional foul call.
After that game, Fred Barakat, the league's director of officials, publicly defended his crew and denounced Hewitt's charges, essentially saying that if you don't want to be called for fouls, then don't foul. No doubt the phone lines between Hewitt and Barakat and/or their respective representatives have been busy.
Hewitt, along with other young coaches in the league, faces a quandary. They all watch Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski lobby, berate, stare down, work and, ultimately, intimidate officials around the league. Then they check the foul numbers and see that the Blue Devils, despite their tough pressure defense, rank at the bottom of the league in terms of fouls called and free throws shot against them.
In some ways, coaches aren't doing their jobs if they don't work, like Krzyzewski, to get their teams every possible break. But if they overdo it, as some have suggested Hewitt has done, they risk being labeled in the media and around the league as whiners and complainers.
Non-Tech fans and some columnists already have weighed in, claiming Hewitt credits his players when they win and blames the officials when they lose. Those critiques only intensified after Hewitt's let us guard plea, one of the first times the coach, who enjoys a solid and open relationship with the media, has taken some heat.
That claim was a bit overreaching, but, as with most matters of this kind, perception has a way of becoming reality. Officials read and hear Hewitt's comments. It can't help but have some effect on their officiating, positive or negative.
For his part, Hewitt has vowed to keep his opinions about officiating to himself. Sensing that perhaps his claims were having at best no effect and at worst a negative effect, Hewitt is backing off the line of attacks.
Talented Elder Still An Enigma
Hewitt has not limited his most pointed public comments to officials. In constant search of a way to motivate guard B.J. Elder, the team's best player and one of the biggest talents in the league, Hewitt again has taken his case public.
As far back as last season, Hewitt has been using the media to light a fire under Elder. He called him college basketball's biggest secret, which quickly turned him into anything but. This year, Hewitt called Elder the best player he's ever coached, better than NBA players Kerry Kittles and Tim Thomas, before adding the caveat when he's got it going.
But all the talk both public and private with and about Elder hasn't gotten the sweet-shooting junior from Madison, Ga., to truly buy into the hype. Elder still disappears in games, becoming an offensive and defensive non-factor for long stretches at a time.
Elder remains the player most capable of carrying the Yellow Jackets, as he has done from time to time. He lit up Clemson for 36 points. His tit-for-tat in the second half with North Carolina's Rashad McCants was pure beauty. If the Yellow Jackets are to make a serious run in the postseason, Elder will have to play more games like those, and fewer where he scores a single point in the first half, as he has done on a few occasions this year.
Hewitt has tried nearly everything to get Elder to dominate, but the player's personality doesn't inspire him to do so. The Yellow Jackets regularly run screens for Elder, and his teammates constantly tell him to shoot. Hewitt calls it the me factor and often wishes aloud that Elder had more of it.
It's been a tough season personally for Elder, who struggled with the illness and death of his grandfather. He's soft-spoken and not among the team's vocal leaders. Considering his non-aggressive personality and his no-trash-talk reputation, Elder surprisingly got into altercations in games against Duke and Clemson this season. He's still prone to silly mistakes, whether picking up needless fouls early in the game or stepping in on a free throw, something that understandably infuriates Hewitt.
Coaches throughout the league gush about Elder's ability and routinely assign their best defenders to harass him. But what drives Hewitt crazy is that it's usually not the defenders who stop Elder. It's often himself. That lack of aggressiveness even led Hewitt to bench Elder for a game.
As with the case involving the officials, it seems that no public words from Hewitt are going to generate dominance from Elder. That's obviously a decision that will have to come from within the player himself.