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After Special Class, Hewitt Can Reflect

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

March 31, 2005

ATLANTA – John Salley and Mark Price hold the Georgia Tech crown for jump-starting the basketball program in the early 1980s. The classmates, part of Bobby Cremins' first full recruiting class at Tech, lifted the Yellow Jackets from the very bottom of the ACC to the league's summit.

Now the Jackets' modern-day rebuilding blocks – the players who made up coach Paul Hewitt's first full recruiting class – also are gone, having re-established Tech as a hot destination and a national contender.

Forward Anthony McHenry, center Luke Schenscher and the two players most credited with taking a chance on Tech – guard B.J. Elder and forward Isma'il Muhammad – will leave Atlanta with 79 career victories and two NCAA Tournament appearances, including the deepest run in school history with last year's championship game appearance. Tech's fifth 2004-05 senior, guard Will Bynum, transferred from Arizona for his last two seasons. He, too, will be missed.

After the Yellow Jackets' loss to Louisville in the NCAA Tournament's second round, Hewitt thanked his seniors and praised them for their conduct off the court as much as on it.

"You all get a chance to see them perform on the court. I get a chance to see them every day. I know how classy these guys are," Hewitt said. "If you want to put together a public service announcement on what a student-athlete should be, I've got five guys here that you can just follow them around every day and you'll see exactly what you want a student-athlete to be. They represent everything that is right about college basketball. Those five guys have handed something very precious over to those young guys."

The seniors began their ACC careers 0-7 in the league in 2002 before rallying to a 7-9 finish, which is where Hewitt always begins any discussion about the class.

So what went wrong this year?

This season was supposed to be the coronation of the class, the cherry on top. And despite winning 20 games and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, it never had that oh-so-sweet feeling. Injuries robbed Elder and Muhammad of their chances to go out on top, and they also hampered the Yellow Jackets' chances for another postseason run.

Elder, who didn't work out for much of the summer because of the sprained ankle he suffered in last year's NCAA Tournament, was just finding his groove when he strained his hamstring on New Year's Day at Kansas. He was never the same, and he all but disappeared in the NCAA Tournament. Elder never re-gained that extra step, always seemingly trailing the man he was defending.

For Muhammad, it was patellar tendonitis that left him unable to be the high-flying, super-dunking player he was during his junior season. Hewitt was forced to sit him out during the ACC Tournament because of the knee problems – a painful decision – and Muhammad tried gamely to gut it out in the NCAA Tournament. After games, he sat on the floor with both knees wrapped in massive bags of ice. The injury stripped him of his ability to rise, costing Tech an offensive option and a defensive stopper.

The dislocated kneecap of promising freshman forward Jeremis Smith, suffered in November, certainly didn't help the Yellow Jackets' cause, either. Smith, like Elder, came back but was not the player he was before the injury. The good news for Smith, of course, is that he has three more seasons left in Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Hewitt repeatedly blamed himself for the team's lack of offense throughout the season, especially when injuries took away Elder and Muhammad. At times, he hinted at upcoming changes in his free-flowing offensive style.

The team's philosophy usually worked well when the Yellow Jackets were at full strength, but in the ACC opposing coaches were able to take away Tech's top options. That often left the Jackets' less accomplished offensive players taking too many shots or made their better options force difficult attempts.

Taking a cue from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who did a masterful job of getting shots for his best players this season, Hewitt said he could move to a more hands-on approach if the team continues to struggle in the future.

That might be as soon as next year, especially if point guard Jarrett Jack bypasses his senior season. Jack is expected to declare for the NBA draft but not hire an agent. That would allow him to test himself in pre-draft camps and get a better idea of his status, while giving him the option of returning to school.

Jack roughly is projected as a late first-round pick and likely will not remain in the draft if his status is not more certain than that.

Heart Attack Hardly Slowed Gailey

On March 14, in the middle of one of his regular early morning racquetball games on campus, Georgia Tech football coach Chan Gailey felt a sharp pain in his chest and left arm.

He eventually was taken to the hospital, over his objections, where doctors found a 100-percent blockage in one heart artery. Gailey, 53, underwent an angioplasty to remove the blockage that day.

The incident put a scare into the Tech athletic department.

"It was touch and go for a little while," Tech athletic director Dave Braine said.

But it didn't slow down Gailey, who left the hospital two days after surgery. He left the doctors, who had expected him to be in the hospital for four days, little choice but to let him out.

He was back at practice four days after undergoing the surgery. He watched from a golf cart the first day, then witnessed a scrimmage from the stands the next day.

Gailey also made sure that the team's normal practice schedule was not interrupted. From his hospital bed, he told the Yellow Jackets to continue with normal practice, as scheduled. He missed just one practice, despite the protestations of his wife, Laurie, who watched over her husband on his first day back at work.

Gailey, who played racquetball up to three times a week, doesn't smoke or drink. But the coach has added weight, perhaps as many as 40 pounds, since taking over the Tech program in 2001. Braine joked that Gailey's biggest problem was the ice cream that's always available at the team's training table.

The heart attack cast a pall over the Yellow Jackets' spring practice. Without many jobs on the line, Gailey's heart attack immediately became the biggest story.

It also cast the upcoming season – a must-win situation for the staff – in perspective. Gailey's job is on the line, many suspect. Anything less than an eight-win campaign could lead to the coach's dismissal, with a year left on his deal.

Before the heart attack, Gailey was extremely optimistic about the 2005 season, upbeat about the team's prospects and the beginning of spring practice.

"Things are going to happen during the season, too. We all know that. This is one of those times that you've just got to adjust and adapt, keep going, knowing that's what he wants you to do," Tech offensive coordinator Patrick Nix said. "He's expecting to win, whether he's out here or not."

But Gailey also is intent on being out there, then staying out there. If his actions immediately following his heart attack were any indication, nothing is going to slow him down.