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Nelson's Awakening Helped At Both Ends

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

February 10, 2003 ATLANTA — The re-emergence of forward Ed Nelson, the reigning ACC rookie of the year, has dramatically enhanced Georgia Tech's capabilities, offensively and defensively. Nelson brings a rugged toughness to the Yellow Jackets, a characteristic other team members have picked up on and tried to embrace. On a roster filled with finesse players, Nelson always has accepted the enforcer role without complaint. In fact, he relishes it.

North Carolina coach Matt Doherty called him “blue-collar” after Nelson scored six points and hauled in 13 rebounds in Georgia Tech's victory over UNC. “Every team needs players like that,” Doherty said. Maryland coach Gary Williams complimented Nelson for his toughness after the Yellow Jackets' recent home victory over the Terps.

Nelson, who played with a shiner under his right eye in recent weeks, could take the blue-collar reference and some other comments as a negative. After all, he proved to people last season — some were skeptical that a 6-8, linebacker-looking forward could compete with ACC athletes — that he had the game to not only play, but excel, in this conference.

Instead, Nelson embraces his work-pail role, even if it means coming off the bench. With the arrival of 6-10 forward Chris Bosh, Nelson and center Luke Schenscher have been splitting the other starting spot in the post. More often, it's the 7-2 Schenscher who gets the call, making Nelson a decorated sixth (or seventh) man.

That hasn't changed the way Nelson approaches things on the court. He's willing to mix it up with bigger players in the paint — frankly, he's Tech's only real option for doing the dirty work — and has taken tough defensive assignments in the post.

Nelson's scoring average is down slightly from last season, but he's kept his rebounding numbers at the same level despite playing fewer minutes. After touting his increased range and improved ball-handling abilities in the preseason, though, he has struggled with shot selection. His field goal accuracy is below 40 percent — much different than last season, when he shot 50 percent.

As the season has gone on, Nelson has taken fewer and fewer outside jumpers and been content to battle inside, where he has an assortment of quality moves. He still has some difficulty getting his shot off against quicker post defenders, but he's getting better at drawing fouls and kicking the ball back out to open shooters.

Muhammad, McHenry Struggling

Just as Nelson started taking better shots, others — especially Isma'il Muhammad and Anthony McHenry — started taking more poor ones.

Tech has been a three-man scoring team since the beginning of the season, with Bosh and guards B.J. Elder and Marvin Lewis taking care of most of the point production. Of late, Nelson and point guard Jarrett Jack also have upped their output to help the cause.

But defenses are beginning to let Muhammad, an extraordinary athlete who can fly, shoot open jumpers. He is shooting less than 36 percent from the floor, less than 25 percent from three-point range and less than 43 percent from the line. When he takes off for one of his slashing dunks, teams are just fouling him and forcing him to make two free throws, which doesn't happen often.

Muhammad brings tough defense and athleticism to the floor, but he's taking too many shots. In Tech's free-flowing offense, players are encouraged to take the open shot. Muhammad, who definitely doesn't lack confidence, usually is willing to hoist it up.

So does McHenry, a lanky swingman who has made a lot of progress between last season and this year. Tech coach Paul Hewitt originally tried to mold McHenry into a point guard, but the 6-7, 220-pound sophomore is better-suited for his current role as Mr. Versatility. McHenry is guarding opponents from point guards to power forwards, using his long arms as an advantage. He's improved around the basket as a rebounder, and his ball-handling — spotty at best in the early season — keeps getting better.

But opponents are leaving McHenry open to shoot as well, and he hasn't been able to make them pay. He's shooting under 30 percent from the floor, under 21 percent from three-point range and slightly better than 52 percent from the line.

Hewitt doesn't want to stifle the team's offensive creativity by calling play after play — and one of his offensive tenets is to shoot open shots — but teams are learning quickly that Muhammad and McHenry aren't going to hurt them. That allows opponents to sag on Bosh in the post or cheat out on shooters Elder and Lewis, bogging down the Tech offense and leaving Muhammad and McHenry open for low-percentage shots.

Defenses earlier were doing the same thing to Jack, who increasingly has used the lack of attention to drive and finish. If he continues to do that, defenses will have to change their plan of attack on the freshman point guard.

But Muhammad and McHenry have shown no signs of being able to adapt their games to force a change in defensive strategies. Tech really needs one of them — they combine for more than 30 minutes a game — to find an offensive game soon.

Currently, too much pressure is on Bosh, Elder and Lewis to score each and every game. That's a lot of pressure to put on a freshman and two outside shooters. When Elder or Lewis (or both) is off or in foul trouble, Tech's lack of shooting reserves is apparent.

Elder has continued to score, and he's a heck of a player overall, but he hasn't yet taken the next step toward being a superstar in the ACC. That's what the Tech coaching staff thinks he's capable of, and few who have seen him on a regular basis disagree. Many think Elder can be a dominant player in all phases of the game, much like Josh Howard at Wake Forest.

Howard is a senior and one of the best — if not the best — players in the league. He's grown into that role steadily. But Tech's coaches are convinced that Elder also has that kind of ability, and they would love for him to display more of his impressive all-around game on a more consistent basis.

NCAA: Strong Finish Or Bubble?

Tech's case with the NCAA Tournament selection committee was pretty weak at the conclusion of the first half of the ACC schedule. The home win over Maryland, to kick off the second half, certainly helped. But the Yellow Jackets still hadn't won on the road — an important consideration — and they had just one quality non-conference win, against Georgia.

After finishing the non-conference schedule 7-4, including last-second losses to Tennessee and Minnesota and a bad loss to Tulane, Tech likely needs at least nine wins in the ACC regular season to earn a bid. If the Yellow Jackets finish 9-7 and win one game in the ACC Tournament, that would put them at 17-12. If they can somehow get to 10-6 in conference play and then do some damage in Greensboro — not likely, perhaps, but they sure finished strong last season — they'd be an NCAA lock at 18-11 or better.

That one-game difference, and the higher standing in the league, could be enough to boost the Yellow Jackets back into the NCAA Tournament. In order for Tech to achieve a winning record in the conference, though, it's going to have to win a game on the road, which has been the team's Achilles heel all season.

Whether it's youth, intimidation or just poor luck, the Yellow Jackets haven't gotten over the hump on the road. The selection committee weighs a team's last 10 games heavily, though, so the Yellow Jackets could get hot and steal a bid.

With the conference so muddled in the middle, Tech needs a run like last season — when it won seven of its last nine games — to separate itself from the pack ... and make those on the committee take notice.