March 21, 2007
ATLANTA The line between a successful season and a failed one was hard to discern for the Georgia Tech basketball team.
The Yellow Jackets accomplished coach Paul Hewitt's primary goal by making the NCAA Tournament. They also restored pride in the program with a late-season rally that got them to 20 wins and into the Big Dance, after an ugly 11-17 finish in 2005-06.
But the Jackets, to a man, came away from this season feeling like underachievers, like they didn't meet their potential or the outside expectations of a nationally ranked preseason team.
"And it was all us," junior guard Anthony Morrow said. "We didn't do what we should have done. The whole year, we let opportunities slip."
Tech failed to handle adversity well, not surprising from such a young team. Two true freshmen, point guard Javaris Crittenton and wing forward Thaddeus Young, started 31 of the 32 games. Another freshman, power forward Zach Peacock, averaged 20 minutes per game. The Yellow Jackets had just one senior in their rotation, wing guard Mario West.
They became what Hewitt called a "feel-good" team, which is what everyone tries to avoid in coaching.
"When you scout people, you try to sniff out the teams that are feel-good teams, which means if you put a run on them, you can put them away," Hewitt said. "I didn't do a good job of steering us away from being a feel-good team."
He did for all of February and the first week of March. Tech won seven of its last nine regular-season games, defeating North Carolina and Boston College in the final week to secure an NCAA bid.
Once postseason play began, though, the Yellow Jackets reverted to their old ways.
A porous defensive effort, particularly in guarding the three-point shot, led to an ACC Tournament loss to Wake Forest. Hewitt said the pre-game scouting report on guard Harvey Hale was just one line: Make him a two-point shooter. Hale hit six threes in two overtimes to give the Deacons a 114-112 win.
The Jackets had UNLV reeling in the NCAA Tournament's opening round. They rallied from 14 points down to tie the game with less than two minutes to go, overcoming an off night by Young and Crittenton, their two leading scorers.
They failed to get defensive rebounds on back-to-back possessions in the final 94 seconds, though, and the Rebels converted for four points. UNLV big men wrestled two boards away from Tech's best rebounders, Peacock and muscular junior forward Jeremis Smith.
"Rebounding is all about will," Smith said. "You have to have will and heart to rebound out there. As you can tell, they had a lot more will than we did under the glass."
The Yellow Jackets will have a long offseason to stew over their finish.
West is the only scheduled loss, having exhausted his eligibility. Young and Crittenton could depart for the NBA both are projected as first-round picks, with Young a possible top-10 selection but Young said he plans to stay, and Crittenton knows that another season in college could make him a higher pick in the future.
"As far as I know, I'm coming back," Young said. "Right now, I'm just looking forward to next year and another year of school."
The roster will change even if both Young and Crittenton return. Hewitt signed three recruits for next season, and West's scholarship is the only one currently available. The situation is not unusual in college basketball, particularly for a program such as Tech, which has lost underclassmen to the NBA draft in the past and has had reserve players transfer to schools where they might get more playing time.
At least one Tech player potentially could lose his scholarship for academic reasons. Talented wing guard Lewis Clinch was ruled ineligible in January and must regain his academic standing in the spring semester and summer school to remain on scholarship next season.
Low turnover should result in a team capable of winning the ACC title next season. Matt Causey, a point guard who transferred from Georgetown last fall, can handle the point guard duties if Crittenton leaves, and Tech has depth at Young's position, particularly if Clinch regains his eligibility. One of the recruits, forward Gani Lawal, is talented enough to compete for a starting spot immediately.
But all of that talent won't matter if the Jackets don't mature as a team, Morrow said.
"Having so many guys coming back doesn't mean anything if we don't come together and stay together an entire season," Morrow said. "We can't let little things on the court get us down. We have to stay in the moment with each other and as a team. We did that a lot this year, but if you don't do it all the time, it can cost you at crucial times."
FOOTBALL FINDING NEW WEAPONS
Quarterback Taylor Bennett and a trio of Georgia Tech wide receivers quickly dispelled in mid-March the notion that Calvin Johnson's departure would mean ruin for the passing game.
Bennett looked sharp in the opening two weeks of spring practice and found a Johnson-esque target in freshman Demaryius Thomas. The 6-4, 220-pounder is big and physical like Johnson, the 2006 Biletnikoff Award winner.
Bennett admitted that he'll miss Johnson but won't complain about the wide receivers he has on hand.
"We relied on him in big-time situations," Bennett said of Johnson. "We don't have that luxury, that Calvin luxury anymore. But then again we've got (Thomas), who's a freak of nature as well. We do have some big-play guys. They have some other roles they can play to fill those gaps."
James Johnson, the Jackets' second-leading wide receiver in 2006, is back. He emerged last fall as a sure-handed pass catcher, someone willing to run short and underneath routes. Another veteran, Greg Smith, is the third wide receiver.
Bennett quickly has picked up new offensive coordinator John Bond's passing schemes. Bond's offense involves more timing routes and short passes than that of former coordinator Patrick Nix (now at Miami), and that suits Bennett's pocket-passing skills well.
Bennett threw for more than 300 yards as Tech's offense scored 35 points in the Gator Bowl loss to West Virginia.
Bond wants high scores to become a trend for the Yellow Jackets.
"To lead the ACC in scoring is our goal," Bond said. "That's how we're going to approach this year. We have enough good players to get that done, and we're going to try and put them in position consistently enough where they can make plays and score points."