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Elder, Smith Return At Crucial Juncture

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

February 14, 2005 ATLANTA ó He went down in anguish.

In the final minutes of a blowout victory against Arkansas-Little Rock in November, Georgia Tech forward Jeremis Smith dislocated his right kneecap while attempting to take a charge. He crumpled to the ground, letting out chilling screams in an arena that suddenly turned silent.

The loss of Smith, a burly 6-6 freshman, seemed minor at the time ó at least to those outside the Yellow Jacketsí program. Tech, after all, had plenty of options.

But Tech coach Paul Hewitt saw something completely different. He saw his most poised freshman, his most physically ready freshman and his most polished freshman gone, potentially for the season. The coach immediately knew what the Jackets had lost.

Hewitt had seen in preseason practice the effect Smithís physical strength could have on a roster that lacked much beef in the middle. After the injury, Techís coaches sometimes talked privately about the impact Smith would have made.

As it turned out, everyone else would learn the same lessons during Smithís 18-game absence and in his return.

Overshadowed by the hamstring injury to senior shooting guard B.J. Elder, Smithís absence cost the Yellow Jackets important mental and physical toughness. That was most evident in the teamís failure to post a conference road victory while he was out.

Even Smithís return was eclipsed in the headlines. He returned on the same night as Elder. But in their first game back, at Clemson, the Jackets earned their first ACC road victory. It wasnít pure coincidence.

Smith is strong with the ball and doesnít turn it over very often. In his first 45 minutes of action, spanning three games and four months, he turned the ball over once. He can knock down the 15-foot jumper, something Ismaíil Muhammad and Anthony McHenry, the teamís primary power forwards with Smith out, still canít do.

Smith also provides a physical presence all over the court: setting screens, getting rebounds, making tough defensive plays. Against Clemson, he simply ripped the ball from veteran Clemson forward Olu Babalola, who is among the leagueís strongest players, at one key juncture. Late in the game, Smith took a charge in almost the exact same spot on the floor where he was injured in November. Smith jumped up, much to the relief of Hewitt and the Tech faithful.

ìThatís what coach recruited me for. Iím a tough player, very aggressive. At the end of the game itís crunch time, and you have to hold onto the ball, you have to protect it,î Smith said. ìYou canít just give it away to the other team. Thatís how you lose in the clutch.î

Hewitt considered redshirting Smith, who needed about 11 weeks to return to the court. But Smith wanted to play, and after consulting with Smithís family and his high school coach, Hewitt reached the same conclusion.

Surely, Smithís ability to impact the rest of the Yellow Jacketsí season played a part in the choice. But so did the belief that Smith, a good student, likely will not be around for a fifth (redshirt) season in Atlanta.

Elder strained his left hamstring on Jan. 1 against Kansas and then, just as he was close to returning, aggravated the injury on Jan. 20. The Yellow Jackets went 4-6 (including the Kansas game) without him.

Before the injury, Hewitt had called out Elder for his lack of aggressiveness and for generally letting his senior season pass by without grabbing the spotlight.

The time on the bench might have changed all that. Elder earned insight, gaining a better understanding of Hewittís system, offensively and defensively. When teammates approached Elder and questioned Hewittís critiques, Elder backed up his coach.

Yes, Muhammad and guard Will Bynum were trying too hard to score off the dribble. No, the Yellow Jackets werenít making the extra pass. Yes, they were blowing defensive assignments that Hewitt had gone over extensively in practice and during film sessions.

In his first game back, Elder called for the ball, a near-first according to his coaches and teammates. Even though he wasnít at 100 percent, he seized control of the game during a key second-half stretch, taking over offensively when his team was struggling.

ìIn his own words,î point guard Jarrett Jack said, ìhe just told me to get him the ball.î

Bolstered Lineup More Dangerous

With Elder and Smith back on the floor, the Yellow Jackets again look like a team that can make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Elderís return allows the Jackets to move either Bynum or Muhammad out of the starting lineup, giving Tech a weapon off the bench, where production has been lacking.

Bynum, who takes an Iverson-esque beating on the court every time out, now can play fewer minutes. Smithís return will allow Muhammad, who is still troubled with knee tendonitis, to play fewer minutes. Theodis Tarver, constantly shifted between center and power forward, can return to center, giving Tech plenty of fouls at the position behind starter Luke Schenscher.

Freshmen RaíSean Dickey and Anthony Morrow move further down the rotation, a good thing considering their lack of impact lately. Dickey simply turns the ball over too much and doesnít defend enough to be an important contributor down the stretch. Morrowís shooting inconsistency wonít be as much of a factor with Elder back in the fold.

Now itís all about the Georgia Tech team Hewitt envisioned before the season and the one he planned on having all along. He wonít complain publicly about injuries, calling them an excuse, but itís clear that the missed time impacted Tech in many ways.

ìI couldnít sleep last night,î Hewitt said after the Clemson game. ìThatís how nice (having a full lineup) was. It was kind of like waiting for Christmas morning.î

Hewitt Toning Down Criticism?

Hewitt, who is among the more vocal and animated coaches when it comes to working officials, is hoping to dial down that reputation.

The officials in the Clemson game refused to talk with him. In a road loss to Duke, the officials consistently shooed him back to the huddle during timeouts. The league office has called him several times about his protests over non-calls, especially those on Schenscher and Jack.

The conventional wisdom is that working the officials can earn you a call later in the game. But Hewitt believes things also can work in the opposite direction.

Some officials, with their growing egos spurred by television time, can interpret too much feedback from coaches on the sidelines as being shown up. When thatís the case, they may be more likely to make a call against a complaining coachís team at a crucial moment.

Hewitt hasnít given up on trying to get more calls for the Yellow Jackets. But heíll do it through quieter ways, like sending tapes to the league office that chronicle poor calls.

Watching Hewitt on the sidelines during games is great theater. Unlike Dukeís Mike Krzyzewski, who works the officials under his breath and often through a hand near his mouth, Hewitt is closer to the Gary Williams school of bombast.

Techís coach canít hide his frustration, often throwing his hands in disgust after getting an officialís explanation. Itís great theater, but it hasnít really helped the Yellow Jackets, who have been called for more fouls than their conference opponents this year.

Itís unlikely that heíll be able to shake his natural reactions to poor calls, and he definitely wonít stop defending his players in very public arenas. But Hewitt is trying to tone it down ó ever so slowly, ever so slightly.

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