January 4, 2005
ATLANTA It's now obscured by Georgia Tech's thrilling run to the Final Four, but the Yellow Jackets suffered through a 7-8 stretch from early January to the end of February last season. Among the losses: at Florida State, at Virginia and two to N.C. State.
Tech defeated Clemson on Feb. 28, then went on to upset Duke the next week. From the Clemson game to the end of the season, the Yellow Jackets went 9-2, with their final loss coming in the NCAA Tournament title game.
After some losses in 2003-04, Hewitt insisted that the Yellow Jackets were "playing as good as anyone in the country." The skeptics snickered. But Hewitt was right, and the team's showing in the tournament proved that much.
"Last year, when they would lose a game, he kept telling his team, telling us, telling everybody else who would listen, that they were a good team and they would continue to be good," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. "He said what we should all know by now: Even good teams and great teams lose sometimes."
Now Hewitt is at it again.
Despite the Yellow Jackets' three-game slide near the start of conference play, despite long-term injuries to star shooting guard B.J. Elder and freshman forward Jeremis Smith, plus short-term injuries to many of the other Tech players, despite all of that, Hewitt again is talking about his team in special terms.
Hewitt knows, perhaps better than most, the importance of March in college basketball today. ACC regular-season and (especially) tournament titles are nice, shiny and look good in the display case. But everyone truly remembers what happens in the NCAA Tournament, and Hewitt knows that as well as anyone.
It's not that he isn't concerned with winning conference titles (clearly he is), but Hewitt has been masterful at getting his team to play its best in March.
In his second season at Tech, the Yellow Jackets won eight of their last 11 games, including five straight, to make a run at an NIT bid. In his third season, the Jackets made it to the quarterfinals of the NIT. Then, of course, last season bolstered the trend.
The flip side of the late-season runs has been a midseason lull. In 2001-02, Tech lost six in a row and eight of 11. In 2002-03, the Yellow Jackets dropped five in a row. Last season, experts were claiming the Jackets needed a victory at Clemson in late February just to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Hewitt's insistence on season-long individual work getting extra one-on-one time in the gym with coaching, as opposed to endless team practices means his players continue to get better during the season. He also has shunned the media's fascination with building each game up to be the Super Bowl, an all-meaning, all-telling contest.
Whether this Tech team can sustain the stretch of March success still must play out, but the Yellow Jackets appear to be setting up for another late-season surge.
Elder, whose hamstring injury against Kansas on Jan. 1 has been blamed for many of the Yellow Jackets' troubles, should be back in mid-February. Tech coaches hope he can regain his stroke by March. Smith (dislocated kneecap) remains a possibility to return late in the season, although that's looking less and less likely.
Without Elder, the Yellow Jackets have been forced to turn the offense over to senior guard Will Bynum and junior guard Jarrett Jack. They've also had to turn to freshman guard Anthony Morrow and junior guard Mario West for pivotal stretches. That experience should prove invaluable come tournament time.
There is a sense around the program that once Elder comes back, the Yellow Jackets will surge. Hewitt's past history suggests that's not out of the question.
Numbers, Coach Back Schenscher
Because of his height and what fans perceive as a lack of force, Tech center Luke Schenscher will forever be considered lacking.
Even though he earned All-Final Four honors last year, the fans are on him again, complaining that he is not doing enough.
Hewitt, who famously called a sports-talk show early last season to defend his center, is doing it again. Most recently, the coach shot down callers to his radio show and interviewers who attempted to describe Schenscher as a disappointment.
The numbers suggest otherwise.
Schenscher, an affable Australian who has made incredible progress since arriving on campus, averaged 9.2 points and 6.6 rebounds last season. Those numbers grew to 10.8 and 7.0 in the NCAA Tournament, when Schenscher became something of a cult hero. Midway through this season, he was averaging 9.9 points and 7.5 rebounds.
That's not the next-level jump many Tech fans expected from Schenscher. Not after his 17-point, 17-rebound effort against North Carolina in last year's ACC Tournament, or the 19-point, 12-rebound performance he put up against Oklahoma State in the national semifinals. But it's not a decline, either.
"He has gotten more out of his athletic ability than perhaps anyone I've ever coached," Hewitt said.
No Yellow Jacket has missed Elder more than Schenscher. With Elder on the floor, Schenscher gets more room to operate and doesn't have to contend with as many double teams. Elder also allows Schenscher to take advantage of his passing abilities when the double teams do come.
Freshman center Ra'Sean Dickey is the raw physical talent that Schenscher isn't. But Dickey isn't the defensive presence Schenscher is, nor is he as comfortable passing out of double-teams or shooting free throws. So Schenscher will continue to get the minutes late in games.
Expected improved play from Schenscher when Elder gets back is another reason the Yellow Jackets are thinking about another long run.
Hewitt: Jack Deserves More Calls
Hewitt doesn't shy away from working the officials, be it during the game or after. In some corners, the coach is developing a reputation as someone who complains about the officials all the time.
His constant talking with and occasional glaring at officials during the game is doing nothing to diminish that reputation. But Hewitt does have some valid points.
Last year, he complained long and loud about how Schenscher was defended, with opponents often riding him out of post position. This year, teams have taken the extra-physical approach with Jack, Tech's best player and unquestioned leader. Opponents are running quicker double-teams at Jack on the pick-and-roll, then riding him into the lane.
Hewitt used the podium after Tech's 102-101 overtime victory against Wake Forest as a forum to vent about the physical treatment of Jack.
"I think Jarrett Jack is an outstanding player," Hewitt said. "I'm just not sure that when a player as good as Jarrett does some of the things he does, like gets knocked off balance or stumbles, I'm just not sure he's doing that all on his own. I think (Wake Forest's) Chris Paul is an outstanding player. I'd just like to see a kid who has established himself to be one of the better players in this league be treated as such.
"It's hard to complain about these things when you lose games, because it sounds like sour grapes. But when (Jack) takes a shot and it hits the side of the backboard, he's too good for that. When he's dribbling the ball in the middle of the floor and he falls down, I've got to think something is there. This is a kid who was the MVP of the regional last year. I think there are other great players in this league that when things look awkward, there's an assumption, and I'd like to see the same assumption for him."
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