January 27, 2003
ATLANTA The sense of urgency surrounding Georgia Tech's season grew considerably in January.
Having ended last season with wins in eight of their last 11 games, the Yellow Jackets certainly had an NCAA berth on their minds heading into 2002-03. They lost only point guard Tony Akins and forward Clarence Moore from last year's rotation, and they added highly touted freshmen Chris Bosh and Jarrett Jack. Paul Hewitt's program, it seemed, was headed in the right direction.
Though this season can hardly be qualified as a failure, the Yellow Jackets found themselves stumbling through a mediocre campaign as they approached February, plagued by an inability to win on the road and some costly non-conference losses. Any chances Tech has of making the NCAA Tournament hinge on a close reminiscent of last season or a run through the ACC Tournament.
Why have the Yellow Jackets not elevated themselves to the top of the conference? The reasons are numerous and not all that surprising for such a young team:
p Losing on the road: The Yellow Jackets have yet to find a comfort level away from Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Chalk up some of Tech's struggles to youth here, and some to the rigors of college basketball travel.
The team hasn't helped itself by not matching the intensity of its opponents in some road games. Part of it comes from having poise and mental toughness, two things the Yellow Jackets failed to show in late-game situations against Tennessee and Minnesota. Add into the equation the frenzy Tech has walked into at some road games, and the team hasn't been able to overcome talented teams and hostile environments. The lack of success away from home clearly is weighing on the players, who seem to press even more to get that monkey off their back.
p Unexpected struggles: When Luke Schenscher, Tech's 7-1 center from Australia, returned after a foot injury last season, the Yellow Jackets took off. Schenscher then worked with the Australian national team in the summer and bulked up to better handle himself in the ACC.
But Schenscher's work has not paid big dividends so far this season. Instead of the fluid shooter and capable inside threat he was at times last season, Schenscher seems less comfortable with the ball, which he turns over more often than not when he catches it in the post. Tech works hard to establish him inside early in games, but Schenscher gets bumped and pushed around by stronger defenders.
Most discouraging has been seeing Schenscher get blocked on moves to the basket. At his height, he should be able to dunk, but Schenscher has been rejected by quicker leapers on numerous occasions. And he isn't making up for his offensive troubles with rebounding or defense. Though Hewitt has kept him in the starting lineup, Tech might be better off with 6-8 Ed Nelson playing center against some of the smaller conference lineups.
Schenscher's woes have been the most pronounced, but the Yellow Jackets also are getting less than expected out of swingmen Isma'il Muhammad and Anthony McHenry.
Muhammad, as good an athlete as one will find in college basketball, can leap and dunk with the best of them. But he can't shoot straight, his flat shot isn't pretty to watch, and the repeated misses are weighing on his confidence. He still brings defensive intensity, but Tech needs more offense out of him.
McHenry was tried as a backup point guard, but he just made too many mistakes. Now he's getting time at power forward, when Tech goes with a small lineup. He's long and athletic, but his handle and decision-making are shaky.
Tech expected to be better than 7-4 in its non-conference schedule, a mark that put the Yellow Jackets behind even before ACC play began. After a 3-0 start, including a victory against Georgia that keeps looking better every day, Tech went 4-4 over the rest of its out-of-conference slate. Narrow losses to Minnesota and Tennessee and awful performances at Syracuse and at Tulane will be weighing heavily against the Yellow Jackets come Selection Sunday.
Leadership, Diversity Still Lacking
p Leadership: Tech has no senior scholarship player on its roster, and team captain Marvin Lewis is not a rah-rah type of leader.
At times this season, Tech has needed a swift kick, and no player has been willing to deliver or perhaps capable of delivering that type of wake-up call. Tech's most emotional player, Muhammad, is battling his own offensive struggles and is more often than not using his emotion negatively, beating himself up over missed shots or complaining to referees about calls.
Last season, Akins took it upon himself to lead with words and actions. He bailed out the Yellow Jackets with big plays with the shot clock running down, and he backed up that play by shouldering responsibility for a young team. There's no obvious answer to the same questions this year.
p Options: Tech has yet to establish the type of offensive identity Hewitt hoped for at the season's start.
For most of the year, it's been Bosh everywhere and Elder and Lewis bombing away from three-point range. Without Schenscher inside or Muhammad's slashing ability, it's getting easier to defend the Yellow Jackets.
Jack has yet to make defenses pay for sagging off of him, and opponents are increasing the pressure on Elder and Lewis, making open looks hard to come by. Tech is getting next to nothing offensively from reserves McHenry and Theodis Tarver, who are both solid on the defensive end.
That leaves the triumvirate of Bosh, Elder and Lewis with Nelson chipping in on occasion to carry the offensive load night-in and night-out. Each is capable, but it's a heavy burden to place on them, particularly when other options are not out there.
p Expectations: Perhaps everyone, including the Sports Journal, put a little too much stock in last season's hot finish. After all, the team did lose its heart and soul in Akins.
While Bosh and Jack have done well, it's tough to win consistently with freshmen as two of your most important players, no matter how young the league. Hewitt tried to temper expectations, knowing his young squad had much to learn, but after a disappointing football season much was placed on a return to basketball prominence.
As much as Hewitt and the team want an NCAA Tournament bid, the Yellow Jackets could be better served in the long run by having some success in the NIT. (This is not the goal, of course, but it could end up being one of those blessings in disguise.) Any type of postseason play would benefit the young team, and experiencing success rather than a one-and-done in the big tournament should lift the team's spirits for a run next year. Great things remain possible this season, but time is running short.
Tech loses no one off this year's team and, assuming Bosh returns for his sophomore season, the Yellow Jackets are as well-positioned as anyone to make a run next year. The addition of guard Will Bynum, a transfer from Arizona, gives Tech the extra ball-handler it could use this season. Given another year of experience, the entire team should be better-equipped for road games, conference battles and the ups and downs of college basketball.