March 7, 2006
ATLANTA -- March Madness is taking on a different connotation for Georgia Tech and coach Paul Hewitt this year. Barring an unprecedented run in the ACC Tournament, a maddening season will come to a close for the Yellow Jackets at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Hewitt can take solace in a late-season surge by freshman guard Lewis Clinch and the pending arrival of two of the nation's top recruits in Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young.
But at the same time, the coach is left to figure out where his young yet talented team went wrong in finishing 11th in the conference. The Jackets posted an 11-16 regular-season record -- the program's worst since 1996-97, when they won just nine games -- and a 4-12 ACC mark.
"There are some things I could have done differently earlier," Hewitt said. "Unfortunately, sometimes you have to go through these experiences to notice the warning signs as you see them."
Most discouraging to Hewitt was the way his team closed out the regular season. The Yellow Jackets gave up -- admittedly -- in the final five minutes of a 95-82 loss to Clemson. Tech trailed 72-71 with just over five minutes to go. Then Clemson turned up its full-court defensive pressure, firing up its home crowd, and the Tigers scored 18 of the next 21 points on their way to victory.
"We haven't played full games at times," sophomore center Ra'Sean Dickey said afterward, "but we never gave up like we just did."
The loss came on the heels of a six-game stretch during which Hewitt saw steady improvement from his team. Clemson exploited the weaknesses Hewitt most needs to address in the offseason: the Jackets' absence of backcourt leadership and lack of depth in the frontcourt.
Crittenton and Young will help fill those voids. Crittenton is sure to supplant Zam Fredrick, a shooting guard with a scorer's mindset whom Hewitt converted to point guard, as the starter. Young will help relieve Jeremis Smith's chronic foul problems.
The incumbent players need to better define their roles, too. Aside from junior guard Mario West, Tech's defensive stopper, and Dickey, a low-post scoring machine, the rest of the Yellow Jackets have the identity problems of amnesia sufferers.
RETURNEES FACE MORE ADJUSTMENTS
Smith: He played like an All-ACC candidate during the first half of the season, scoring in double figures in 12 of Tech's first 16 games and posting seven double-doubles.
But ACC opponents soon figured out how to neutralize him. They gave up the jump shot and stood their ground whenever Smith drove, in an attempt to draw predictable charges. He failed to reach double figures in nine of 16 ACC games, as his scoring average dropped under 10 points per game. He still averaged eight rebounds per game.
Smith has the potential to grow his game offensively, and he has the respect of his teammates, making him a natural candidate for leadership as well.
Anthony Morrow: Georgia Tech's most explosive scorer, Morrow scored 20 or more points seven times this year. But the skilled sophomore also had four games where he scored seven points or fewer.
His strength is the three-point shot, but much like Duke's J.J. Redick as a young player, he needs to become a threat in other ways. Morrow also needs to get to the foul line, where his smooth stroke results in a high percentage. He shot just 88 free throws in the regular season, or three per game.
An encouraging part of Morrow's game is his inclination to demand the ball in pressure situations. While he has struggled at times -- he stepped out of bounds in the final seconds of a loss to Florida State, he missed a key shot in an overtime defeat at Maryland, etc. -- his willingness to be the go-to guy is promising.
He does lack skills defensively, although if he makes strides this summer similar to those he made a year ago, he could become a defensive asset.
Fredrick: He has been great in some games and awful in others, but Crittenton's arrival will relieve the pressure on him. Fredrick can score off the bench, and his experience at the point this year will make him a valuable ball-handler.
His scorer's mentality makes him effective in the clutch as well. While he lacks the quickness and toughness of former Tech sixth man Will Bynum, Fredrick could fill a similar role next season. Whether he'll be willing to accept it or not is the question; he almost transferred last summer because of a lack of playing time as a freshman.
Clinch: Hewitt has raved about Clinch's potential since the first time he saw him play in high school. He is a complete offensive player. He is an accurate mid-range and long-range shooter and can score on the drive as well.
Clinch set new career highs in Georgia Tech's last two regular-season games, scoring 20 points versus Wake Forest and 22 against Clemson. He also displayed dramatic improvement on defense late in the season.
"He's been a bright spot over the last six weeks," Hewitt said of Clinch. "He's a big-time player. He has a skill that is very precious: He can score the basketball."
Clinch could become the backcourt leader and clutch scorer Tech often lacked in 2005-06. That role was impossible for him to play this season as a freshman, particularly after he missed five games with a stress fracture in his leg.
D'Andre Bell: He gives Georgia Tech a second defensive specialist, to go along with West. At 6-5, with the wingspan of a jumbo jet, Bell can guard four positions.
Offensively, he possesses a decent jump shot but struggles with his ball-handling and passing. He no doubt will improve in those areas this summer, though, which should help his confidence.
Alade Aminu, Paco Diaw and Mouhammed Faye: These three still are developing into major college players.
Aminu and Diaw will benefit most from months spent in the weight room, improving their strength. A summer of pickup games and camps won't hurt, either.
Aminu is skilled but lacks weight and muscle. He is listed at 6-9 and 210 pounds, and he is quick and agile as a result, making him valuable in full-court pressure situations. Opponents have pushed him around in half-court sets, though, because of his slight build.
Diaw and Faye both are relative newcomers to American basketball, so the expectation is that they gradually will polish their games. Diaw is an unselfish player and a good passer. Faye did not play this season, after the NCAA's initial-eligibility clearinghouse wrestled with translating his transcripts from his school in Africa with their eligibility guidelines. Hewitt often praises Faye's play in practice.
Expect all of these players to embrace new roles going into next season. WIth the exceptions of Aminu, Diaw and Faye, all played significant minutes this year and all improved throughout the season.
If Crittenton and Young meet expectations, and several of the returnees can continue their natural progressions as upperclassmen, March Madness will have a positive meaning for the Yellow Jackets again next season.