April 12, 2004
ATLANTA The disappointment was obvious in the locker room following Georgia
Tech's loss to Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament championship game. But the
Yellow Jackets couldn't help but think about next season, even in the moments
after the crushing defeat.
Tech will be loaded in 2004-05, and that fact is not lost on the players.
The Yellow Jackets lose three seniors Marvin Lewis, Clarence Moore and Robert
Brooks from among their top 10 players, and none of those three ranked among
the team's top playmakers this season.
Lewis, a hot-and-cold shooter, will be easily replaced by rising senior guard
B.J. Elder, whose spot in the starting lineup can be filled by rising junior
forward Isma'il Muhammad. Brooks played sparingly late in the season.
Moore, the team's emotional leader, will be much tougher to replace not
as much for his contributions on the court, which were varied but not overwhelming,
but more for his off-court leadership and emotion. Moore played a huge role
in getting Tech to the title game, a role that may be tougher to replace than
points or rebounds.
With seven of its top nine players returning, Tech will be a favorite next
season in the ACC and nationally. Guards Jarrett Jack and Will Bynum, forward
Anthony McHenry and centers Luke Schenscher and Theodis Tarver all emerged to
varying degrees in the NCAA Tournament. Add in a healthy Elder and Muhammad,
and the Yellow Jackets could contend with just that lineup. Instead, they also
add at least four versatile signees, including the rugged power forward-type
they sorely missed this season and in the final against the bigger Huskies
in Jeremis Smith, who was a favorite of Hewitt on the recruiting trail.
Tech recently lost reserve guard Jim Nystrom, who returned to his native Sweden
after the season because of family concerns and to pursue professional opportunities.
His departure, expected for some time, left Tech with an additional scholarship
for next season.
Can anyone say Randolph Morris? The
6-11 center from the Atlanta area is expected to choose the Yellow Jackets as his college destination, if he doesn't opt for the NBA. Morris' signing instantly would upgrade an already stout recruiting class and possibly even boost Tech to a preseason No. 1 ranking. Most importantly, coach Paul Hewitt will return for a fourth season at Tech and likely many more. There was plenty of speculation, but little worry, that Hewitt, coveted by St. John's and others, would leave Tech. But he turned down the Red Storm and repeated his optimism about a long-term future in Atlanta. Hewitt agreed to a six-year contract worth more than $1 million per season before the Final Four. The deal is expected to become official early this summer, when more details will become available. Recent negotiations also included large bumps for Hewitt's staff, which will undergo its first changes since he arrived in Atlanta in 2000. Assistant coach Dean Keener, Hewitt's top assistant, accepted the head coaching job at James Madison the week before the Final Four. Keener, a very solid Xs-and-Os coach and an underrated recruiter, did an excellent job for the Yellow Jackets, who now lack an outstanding Xs-and-Os assistant. Keener handled much of the breakdown of opponents in practice. Cliff Warren, who was promoted to the top assistant job, has done wonderful work with Tech's guards, Jack and Bynum in particular. But neither he nor assistant Willie Reese was extremely vocal during practices this season. Warren, a sharp coach, probably will take more of that kind of role now that Keener has left.
To complete his staff, Hewitt promoted Peter Zaharis from his position as director of basketball operations. Zaharis, who was an assistant coach at Villanova for three seasons, also arrived at Tech with Hewitt in 2000.
Shotgun, Shuffling Marked Spring While overshadowed by the basketball team's thrilling run to the Final Four, the Georgia Tech football team quietly uncovered during spring practice plenty of questions for the 2004 season. One example: The Yellow Jackets' offensive line, long a strength of the program and thought to be fairly stable again entering this fall, underwent a couple of position switches. Right tackle Kyle Wallace moved to left tackle to protect quarterback Reggie Ball's blind side. Tech didn't feel safe with Kenton Johnson or Salih Besirevic on that side, thus prompting the change. With the departures of center Hugh Reilly and tackle Nat Dorsey for the NFL, Wallace is the team's best offensive lineman. Johnson, a 6-6, 325-pound transfer from Morris Brown, simply didn't show he can get in good enough shape to handle a starting job. Besirevic, who fled war-torn Croatia in 1997 and didn't begin playing football until then, looked fairly impressive in the spring, even edging ahead of Johnson at right tackle. Left guard Leon Robinson is injured again, with his wrist continuing to give him problems. Thus, projected starting center Andy Tidwell-Neal moved back to guard, his starting spot last season, and the staff gave redshirt freshman Kevin Tuminello a chance to earn the starting center job. Reserve guard Matt Rhodes also has a chance to start. Tidwell-Neal will start at center or guard, depending on who is more impressive during preseason practice in August, Tuminello at center or Rhodes at guard. If Robinson returns healthy, he could re-gain his position. Right guard Brad Honeycutt is the only projected starter who remains firmly in the same position he held last season. "We're just trying to get the five best guys on the field," Tidwell-Neal said. In addition to trying to find their place on the field, Tech's offensive linemen learned blocking schemes for the shotgun. The Yellow Jackets worked on shotgun formations all spring, something they almost never did last season. Reilly never got comfortable in delivering the snaps a year ago, and the staff had concerns about putting too much on Ball's plate as a true freshman. After practice, Tidwell-Neal and Tuminello worked with offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris on the snaps. Tidwell-Neal had done it before, and both appeared to be comfortable snapping in the shotgun. The new package would allow Ball to better exploit his skills. Undersized, he had numerous balls batted down at the line of scrimmage last season. As a result, Tech was forced to move the pocket, through rollouts and sprintouts, to get Ball clear passing lanes. The hope is that the shotgun can do that as well. Elsewhere, reserve quarterback Patrick Carter impressed the Tech staff after returning from a dislocated right knee. Tech coach Chan Gailey said he did not know what to expect from the redshirt freshman after he injured himself working out during the winter. But Carter, who has had his toughness questioned during his short career at Tech, dazzled the staff with his athleticism when he returned to the field. At 6-3 and 190 pounds, Carter, the brother of New York Giants wide receiver Tim Carter, can do things, particularly in the pocket, that Ball cannot. Carter was expected to mount a strong challenge to Ball in the spring, but the injury robbed him of most of that chance. Still, keep an eye on Carter throughout the fall. Tech would like to get him on the field somehow. Injuries also played a big role in the defensive backfield, where Dennis Davis didn't play at all and Reuben Houston was limited by injuries. Kenny Scott improved his hold on one corner spot, but the other spot to be manned by Houston in the fall was troublesome, pointing out the lack of depth at the position. Tech even positioned safeties James Butler and Nathan Burton at corner during the spring, and neither looked comfortable there. Once Davis and Houston return, Tech should have three solid cornerbacks, but an injury there could be devastating.