By Brian Murphy,
Macon (Ga.) Telegraph
April 7, 2003 ATLANTA In three seasons, Paul Hewitt has put Georgia Tech's basketball program on the right track. Now Hewitt and the Yellow Jackets need to pick up the pace. After qualifying for the NIT and advancing to the quarterfinals, anything less than an NCAA Tournament berth and a top-four finish in the ACC next season will be deemed a disappointment for a the Yellow Jackets. That assumes the return of ACC rookie of the year Chris Bosh, who has suggested he will return but hasn't made an official announcement.
I like where we are, said Hewitt, who replaced Bobby Cremins in April 2000 and has gone 48-44 since. Talent-wise we're pretty good. Depth-wise, we're pretty good. Academic-wise, we're pretty solid. These kids represent the school very well.
Georgia Tech athletic director Dave Braine went through a number of candidates three years ago before settling on Hewitt, who had led Siena to two consecutive postseason appearances. It was a good find.
Hewitt, now considered an up-and-coming coach in college basketball, is firmly entrenched in Atlanta. Most of the discontent raised by fans during a mediocre season melted away with the NIT victories. The fan base still is waiting for the break-out season that reestablishes Tech as an ACC heavyweight, but most seem content to let Hewitt's plan play out.
Hewitt and his assistants have put into place a solid base pressure defense, motion offense, excellent recruiting that should fulfill those hopes soon. His staff is solid with Dean Keener, a strong Xs and Os assistant, and Cliff Warren, more of a teacher for Tech's guards. Warren and freshman point guard Jarrett Jack spent many hours in front of game tape last season, working through time and situation drills.
Hewitt has done some of his best work on the recruiting trail, finding second-tier recruits such as Ed Nelson and B.J. Elder and landing big-time prospects in Bosh and Jack. Hewitt has his preferences, including big guards and athletic post players, for his system, and he's accumulated a number of them. Nelson and Bosh have been the last two ACC rookies of the year, and with nine usable juniors and sophomores Tech's talent base is secure for the next couple of seasons.
Arizona transfer Will Bynum, a quick guard, will be the lone addition to the Yellow Jackets next season because of some recruiting misses and a scholarship crunch. He will help Tech with its two primary weaknesses; he's an extra ball-handler and another scorer. The Yellow Jackets' offense struggled at times last season, particularly when Elder had to replace Jack at the point. Elder was the team's best creator, and when he had to distribute the ball, the offense stagnated.
It will actually benefit B.J. Elder more than anybody else on the team. He can be a full-time two and possibly, possibly, score more points, Hewitt said. I didn't think (not having a true backup point guard) was a problem before the season started, because I thought other guys could chip in scoring. But when scoring became such a premium for us, not having a guy to keep B.J. away from the ball, it became a weakness for us.
With such a young team, the Yellow Jackets often lacked leadership in 2002-03. Captain Marvin Lewis began to grow into the position as the season wore on, but Lewis is not a vocal type. Jack, still learning to manage a game, may develop into the type of leader most highly successful teams need. Bosh, who challenged his teammates in front of reporters at the ACC Tournament, also could fill the role. But Tech's current roster lacks the fiery, emotional, pound-the-floor type of leader, and Hewitt, though fiery, is not prone to exaggerated displays. Bynum could help in this area, as the Chicago native brings a little swagger, fire and cockiness to a team in need of an edge.
Tech is well-equipped at every other position, going two-deep with experienced players. If Bosh jumps to the NBA he's projected as a top-five pick by some analysts the Yellow Jackets certainly will be hard-pressed to replace him. Theodis Tarver and Luke Schenscher are on hand, but there's no one with the talent necessary to carry the offense. That's the program's main recruiting need in the Class of 2004.
Bosh's departure also would require Hewitt to design a scheme around Elder. Late in the season, with scoring difficulties evident, the coach restructured the offense to feed through Bosh and Elder. The plan worked to a degree, getting more shots for Tech's better shooters and fewer for its lesser offensive players.
The change reflected Hewitt's ability to adjust and his willingness to take chances. Some thought the move should have been made earlier and that Bosh, the team's most dominant player, still did not get enough touches.
We were so young, Hewitt said. It would have been hard to say, Let's run everything through this guy and this guy,' particularly when they're freshmen and sophomores.
Youth shouldn't be as much of a problem in the future. Hewitt, after reloading the cupboard, now has the ability to stagger his classes. For the first time in his tenure at Tech, he will have continuity among his players for the next year or two.
When Hewitt took over for Cremins, Tech's all-time winningest coach, the program was in decline. The Jackets hadn't finished in the top half of the ACC since 1996, which also marked their last NCAA appearance.
But Hewitt managed an NCAA bid in his first season, riding Cremins holdovers Alvin Jones and Tony Akins in his first two seasons. Tech has finished fifth in the ACC in each of Hewitt's first three years. With the influx of talent, Tech clearly is on the rise and gaining momentum. It wouldn't be a shock to see a Wake Forest-like surge next season, something the fan base surely would welcome.
After all, it wasn't so long ago that Cremins made Tech a legitimate basketball force. From 1984-85 to 1992-93, the Yellow Jackets made the NCAA Tournament every season. Tech has produced 10 ACC rookies of the year, more than any other school, so there is a basketball tradition in Atlanta.
In one of his best moves off the court, Hewitt secured court-level seating for Georgia Tech students upon coming to Atlanta. Alexander Memorial Coliseum never will be confused with Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, but the move brought a vitality back to the place many Tech fans call The Thrillerdome. The coliseum doesn't sell out often, and those in the chairbacks high-level donors rarely stand, but Tech did win its first 10 home games of the season.
The next step is carrying that winning to the road, where the young team struggled in 2002-03. It's another small step on the way to Tech's lofty goals.