By Rana L. Cash
November 22, 2005
ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech's lone senior knows he's not well-known around the ACC, or even at Tech for that matter.
Theodis Tarver has started three games in his college career, and that was back during the Yellow Jackets' 2003 NIT run. It's a new era on The Flats, one that begins without the team's most proven players.
Gone is NBA first-round draft pick Jarrett Jack, after his junior year. Gone are the five seniors who led Tech to the 2004 Final Four. In their place is one of the ACC's youngest teams.
This is the first year since 1980-81 that Georgia Tech has not returned a single starter. While the youngsters in place are talented, the ACC pollsters were unmoved. Tech, which advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year, was picked to finish ninth.
Certainly, it's the youngest team sixth-year coach Paul Hewitt has fielded at Tech. Four sophomores and a redshirt junior are in the starting lineup. Hewitt likened it to his second year at Tech, when point guard Tony Akins was the only senior starter. That 2001-02 team started the ACC season 0-7 but finished 7-9 in the league.
Can this team do that? It has every bit of the same potential offensively as that team, but right now it may lack another critical ingredient: toughness.
"I like this team a lot," Hewitt said, "but that's the question for me. Do we have the toughness to carry out a possession offensively until we get the right shot? Do we have the attentiveness to detail that we need, so that when we get deep in the shot clock and we're playing great defense for 25 seconds, are we going to be mentally tough those last 10 seconds?"
Hewitt wasn't convinced of that at the conclusion of the preseason, when defensive breakdowns overshadowed the scoring prowess of players such as freshman guard Lewis Clinch and sophomore guard Anthony Morrow.
Still, it is something sophomore point guard Zam Fredrick believes the team will develop. Fredrick has no choice.
The 6-0 point guard played minimally last season behind Jack and Will Bynum. In the summer, he seriously contemplated transferring. It was a tumultuous summer for Fredrick, who decided to return. Had he left, Tech would have been without a true point guard, since signee Austin Jackson opted instead to play baseball in the New York Yankees farm system.
Now, with the ball in Fredrick's hands, Tech is being led by someone who averaged only 6.7 minutes per game as a freshman.
"I'm more my own player," Fredrick said. "Jarrett was a great player, but I have to bring my own type of game to the table."
Most important, Hewitt said, is making sure Fredrick plays with great intensity throughout the game, instead of in "bursts." Fredrick lost 20 pounds last season and improved his conditioning. Tech's coaches also will be watching his progress defensively and in the mental aspects of the game, including poise and leadership.
"There's a lot that goes into the starting point guard role," Hewitt said. "I have a tendency to be a little harder on those guys than just being able to come down and make a pass or make a play. There's a lot of communicating that has to go on. There's a tremendous amount of responsibility defensively out of that role. I'm still looking (for the answer), to tell you the truth. (Fredrick) is definitely one of two or three guys we're looking at."
The overall condition of the team offers a similar mix of answers and questions. In the frontcourt, the Yellow Jackets have a proven enforcer and a strong rebounder in sophomore forward Jeremis Smith, who appears to have fully recovered from the dislocated kneecap that hampered his rookie season. But center Ra'Sean Dickey, a skilled sophomore, continued throughout the preseason to struggle recognizing double-teams and passing out of them.
Tech fans talk mostly about the point guard situation. But it is Dickey, Hewitt said, who'll be the key to the team's success.
"He's talented," Hewitt said of Dickey. "He looks good some days in individual instruction. Some days, I see some baby steps backward. He, probably more than anyone else, will be responsible for the success of this team, because he's such a presence in the low post.
"What I'm anxious to find out is whether he's mentally tougher than he was as a freshman. I thought he had a good freshman year given his role, but there were times when he didn't understand how you have to push through certain things. That's what I'm anxious to find out, how he'll push through whatever adversities he faces as he moves forward."
Dickey should have many more opportunities to score inside this year, thanks to the continued hot shooting of Morrow and his perimeter mate, Clinch, one of the most touted freshman guards in the nation. Paired with him in the rookie class is center Alade Aminu, the surprise of the newcomers with his passing, ball-handling and shotblocking skills. Both have more scoring capability than 7-1 center Luke Schenscher, but neither has developed the savvy or defensive wit of Schenscher, now in the NBDL.
"He hasn't played a lot of basketball," Hewitt said of Aminu, "but he is going to be great."
Freshman D'Andre Bell brings a defensive toughness to the first-year group, plus a much-needed mid-range offensive game.
A major development over the summer was the acquisition of Paco Diaw, the younger brother of former Atlanta Hawks player Boris Diaw. Paco Diaw, from Senegal, is a rangy point guard who has the ability to be disruptive defensively. After playing one year of high school basketball at Greater Atlanta Adventist Academy, Diaw endured a lengthy waiting period this summer while his previous transcripts from Senegal were interpreted and accepted before receiving clearance from the NCAA.
Diaw's minutes at point guard may be limited with the emergence and significant improvement of junior Mario West. A player known mostly for his defensive ability in his first two seasons, West will start at shooting guard this year and may beat out Fredrick for some minutes at the point as well. West will be responsible for holding the team together.
"(His teammates) respect how hard he works," Hewitt said.
"Mario is consistent," Morrow said, "every day in practice."
Whether it's offering his younger teammates advice during a pregame meal, providing tips in practices or giving directives in the locker room, West has fashioned himself as one of the Yellow Jackets' leaders. It's a position inherited out of necessity. When the Jackets opened the 2005-06 regular season against UNC Asheville, West and four sophomores were in the starting lineup. In terms of rotation players, Tech and North Carolina are by far the ACC's youngest and most inexperienced teams.
Having already matched up defensively with All-Americans such as Duke scorer J.J. Redick and former Wake Forest point guard Chris Paul in the past, West now is asserting himself offensively. He's still a complementary player at that end of the court, but his high-flying acts most resemble dunks made in recent years by fan favorite Isma'il Muhammad.
Muhammad is gone now. This is a different Georgia Tech team. Still, expectations are no less from within.
"We already see ourselves as a very good team," Smith said.
"Our goals," Hewitt emphasized, "have not changed."
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 13-3 (1) 24-12 NCAA Sweet 16
1997 3-13 (9) 9-18 None
1998 6-10 (6) 19-14 NIT Elite Eight
1999 6-10 (5) 15-16 None
2000 5-11 (8) 13-17 None
2001 8-8 (5) 17-13 NCAA 1st Round
2002 7-9 (5) 15-16 None
2003 7-9 (5) 16-15 NIT Elite Eight
2004 9-7 (3) 28-10 NCAA Runner-up
2005 8-8 (4) 20-12 NCAA 2nd Round
x - won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Theodis Tarver 6-9/245 C Sr.
Mario West 6-4/208 PG Sr.
Ra'Sean Dickey 6-9/255 C So.
Zam Fredrick II 6-0/209 PG So.
Anthony Morrow 6-5/205 WG So.
Jeremis Smith 6-6/232 BF So.
Alade Aminu 6-9/210 BF Fr.
D'Andre Bell 6-5/200 WF Fr.
Lewis Clinch 6-3/190 WG Fr.
Paco Diaw 6-6/190 PG Fr.
* - returning starter
Jeremis Smith proved in 2004-05 that he could compete physically in the ACC, after returning from an early season knee injury. A rugged power forward, he also is emerging as a leader for the extremely young Yellow Jackets. His next step involves improving his offensive touch. Anthony Morrow has the confidence and shot of a big-time shooter. With defenses now focusing on him, however, he likely will have to find new ways to create scoring opportunities. Ra'Sean Dickey is an accomplished offensive player in the middle, but his defense must improve dramatically or the Jackets will be vulnerable to low-post players.
OTHER KEY RETURNEES
Zam Fredrick will face more pressure than anybody on the Yellow Jackets' roster this season, and that's not a close call. After threatening to transfer, he stuck around when Jarrett Jack bolted for the NBA and signee Austin Jackson opted for professional baseball. Now Fredrick is the lone true point guard on the roster, and he's being asked to run the team - offensively, defensively and emotionally. He has a nice shooting touch, but not the finishing skills of Jack. During his four years at Tech, Mario West has risen from walk-on status to reliable starter and undeniable leader. Aggressive and quick, he utilizes his athleticism to harass opponents and set the tone for Tech defensively.
Three freshmen almost definitely will earn immediate playing time. Paco Diaw, the brother of Phoenix Suns guard Boris Diaw yet perhaps the least-known of all ACC newcomers, might not be far behind. At 6-6, Paco possesses extremely long arms to disrupt the passing lanes, but he's definitely a project, which helps explain his off-the-radar recruiting status a year ago. Lewis Clinch is anything but a project. Though overshadowed by some of the bigger names coming into the league, he could be a sleeper candidate for rookie of the year, thanks to his smooth long-distance shooting touch. Alade Aminu was the most impressive newcomer in the early going, looking much more physical and polished than he did in high school. The Yellow Jackets have high expectations for Aminu, who will play center and power forward. D'Andre Bell is a rugged defender and extremely athletic. In other words, he's a typical Tech signee under coach Paul Hewitt.
ALSO WORTH NOTING
Fredrick logged extensive practice minutes in the preseason, far more than any other player, to ready him for the difficult task of defending on-the-ball and then initiating the offense. There were some concerns about his stamina in handling all of that, but the practice sessions seem to have solved most of those questions. ... Much as Tech did with B.J. Elder and Marvin Lewis, two shooting guards who often played at the same time, look for the Yellow Jackets to get Morrow and Clinch on the court together. Both have three-point shooting abilities that should stretch the defense and open room for Dickey inside. ... Dickey must develop his passing skills. Last season he had only three assists in 319 minutes. ... Fans will notice a huge new "Buzz" logo on the floor at Alexander Memorial Coliseum. One problem: It makes it difficult for players on the court to see the exact location of the halfcourt line.
Chart By: The Tech Insider