March 6, 2007
ATLANTA Georgia Tech would rather not be involved in an NCAA Tournament debate.
The Yellow Jackets headed to Tampa for the ACC Tournament as a solid at-large bet for the 65-team field. The Jackets defeated Boston College in their regular-season finale to secure an 8-8 league record, capping an impressive four-week run of success.
Tech won seven of its last nine regular-season games, and with an RPI in the 30s and an even stronger strength of schedule rating, the Jackets already have impressive tournament credentials.
Still, the ACC Tournament will give the team a chance to "ice" a bid, Tech coach Paul Hewitt said.
"We're playing well, so why not try and go there and erase all doubt," Hewitt said. "Everybody goes down there with a chance to erase any doubt about the (NCAA Tournament), so that's what we'll focus on."
Tech is capable of a deep ACC Tournament run. The team's road woes do not automatically extend to neutral floors, as evidenced by the Yellow Jackets' runner-up finish in the EA Sports Maui Invitational back in November. In Hawaii, they defeated Purdue and No. 6 Memphis before losing to UCLA, last season's national runner-up, in the championship game.
The Jackets' play over the last month suggested that they will be a dangerous postseason team, in the ACC Tournament, in the NCAA Tournament or even perish the thought in the NIT.
What caused the turnaround? Among other things, Tech adopted a physical style of play inside, and freshmen Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young matured both as team leaders and consistent point producers.
"They're probably playing the best basketball in the ACC right now," Boston College coach Al Skinner said. "They've established a style of ball they want to play, and they're coming out every night and getting it done."
Georgia Tech out-rebounded its last nine opponents in the regular season and held seven of them under 50 percent shooting. The foul discrepancy in the team's March 1 victory over North Carolina the Yellow Jackets drew 10 more fouls than the Tar Heels attracted some notice, although Hewitt later refused to apologize for the roughhousing around the basket.
"We don't have any other way to play," Hewitt said. "We have to play tough, physical defense, and if they call fouls on us, they're going to call fouls on us. We're not going to finesse people, and I'm definitely not going to out-coach anybody, so we've got to get after it.
"I like the fact that we're getting after it. We've re-established ourselves, after playing for a year and a half like something that I didn't recognize."
CRITTENTON, YOUNG BLOSSOMING
Meanwhile, Tech's two star freshmen on the perimeter added the flash to the post clash.
Crittenton, the point guard, averaged 18 points and six assists over the regular season's final month. He scored 20 or more points in six ACC games and showed the ability to carry his team when necessary.
Young, the wing forward, exploded down the stretch from steady scorer to star. He averaged 17 points and shot better than 55 percent in Tech's last four games, giving the Jackets the versatile scoring threat they lost in January, when star wing guard Lewis Clinch was suspended for the rest of the season.
"He's getting more and more aggressive," Hewitt said of Young. "He's an unselfish basketball player in an age where everybody thinks me, me, me. Do I want him to shoot more? Absolutely. But I love his game. He's a terrific player."
The additions of Crittenton and Young were supposed to make Tech a lock for the NCAA Tournament this season. Tech entered the season ranked No. 23 in the nation, despite finishing with an 11-17 record a year ago.
The Yellow Jackets' midseason swoon they lost six of their first eight league games dropped them off the national radar. But they thrived outside the spotlight, then demonstrated their improvement by manhandling No. 8 North Carolina (on ESPN) and Boston College to close the regular season.
"I think we're a tournament team," Young said following the UNC win. "The sky's the limit for our team. I still don't think we've played up to our potential."
For the first time since 2004, when Tech won nine of its last 11 games and reached the national championship game, the Jackets are healthy enough in March to at least have a chance of reaching their considerable promise. Injuries to guards B.J. Elder and Will Bynum stunted the Jackets in 2005, and last year power forward Jeremis Smith was slowed by a lingering back injury.
Smith, the Jackets' leading rebounder and one of the nation's most physical players, said he feels "great" now. He showed it by averaging seven rebounds and nabbing 16 steals over the last nine games.
"This year it's about leading by example," Smith said. "You can't tell somebody to dive on the floor unless you're diving on the floor also. The way I do that is by staying healthy."
Smith's teammates have avoided injuries as well. Fellow power forward Zach Peacock, a freshman, has recovered from the fractured cheekbone he suffered in December. He finally discarded his protective facemask last week. Junior wing guard Anthony Morrow is over a back fracture that sidelined him early in the year. His 13 three-point baskets in the last five games proved that he has regained his conditioning, which is absolutely vital for a jump shooter.
Moving forward, Crittenton is the only wounded player on the Tech team. He suffered from leg cramps, an ankle sprain and a split lip in recent weeks, but he said if he "ain't dying" he'll be on the floor for March Madness.
Tech's health and recent play have the team's followers, and especially Hewitt, anxiously anticipating the postseason.
"We feel like we have more work to do, but we are playing as well as anybody else out there," Hewitt said. "We just want to give ourselves a chance to make the (NCAA Tournament) and see what happens."