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Hewitt Building On Spotlight, Success

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


March 15, 2004 ATLANTA — In the midst of one of its best seasons in history, Georgia Tech — and especially fourth-year coach Paul Hewitt — is not satisfied. The Yellow Jackets are headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001, but Hewitt wants more. It's been obvious in his public and private comments all season that the coach has designs on the top — the top of the ACC, the top of the nation, etc. Those lofty places, of course, historically are reserved for Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA and friends. But, for the most part, not Tech. Perhaps taking cues from Gary Williams at Maryland, Hewitt has made clear that he's not willing to settle for being a very good team in a very good conference. He wants the top, and he has a plan for getting there. Mostly, and wisely, it involves recruiting. “That's what it's about, getting good players that will come to your school and do the work and help you win games,” Hewitt said. “If you try to X and O people in this league, you're not going to be able to do it. The coaches are too good. You need good players.” That is why Hewitt talks of recruiting almost non-stop. Ask him if the ACC Tournament should be moved up and down the East Coast, as opposed to keeping it in North Carolina, and his answer revolves around recruiting. Of course, he says. The more young kids you expose to the atmosphere of the ACC, the better it is for recruiting. The best thing to come from Tech's season-long appearance in the Top 25? The Yellow Jackets' scores and highlights appear on ESPN's SportsCenter and in every major newspaper every day, Hewitt says. Recruits and potential recruits get to see your name every day, he says. Williams guided Maryland to the 2002 national championship and vaulted past North Carolina in the ACC pecking order by keeping that single-mindedness. When professors at Maryland told Williams he should model his program after the highly successful Blue Devils, Williams shot back that his program didn't need to copy anyone. There was enough tradition at Maryland, he said, and he was right. That's the same basic blueprint Hewitt is following as he tries to move the Yellow Jackets to the level of Duke and North Carolina in the eyes of recruits. “We've got a pretty good team, a great city, a great school, a history of a lot of kids going to the NBA, all the things that recruits look for,” Hewitt said. “If we can get on equal footing with them, again if we can keep knocking down the walls that you have to get around or climb over to get the top players…” One reason ESPN announcer Dick Vitale often draws the ire of coaches (privately) and fans (publicly) around the ACC is his fairly obvious pro-North Carolina and especially pro-Duke commentary. Vitale's ranting only reinforces the idea that the conference consists of Duke, UNC and the seven (soon to be nine, and then 10) dwarfs. Vitale is the most recognized voice in the game, and he has the ability to change the perceptions of young players. He makes knocking down walls even tougher. That same general perception represents one of the reasons why the Yellow Jackets' upset victory at Duke late in the regular season was so important. The loss snapped the Blue Devils' 41-game home winning streak and on national television showed that Tech can play with the big boys. The Yellow Jackets proved it again in the ACC Tournament, besting North Carolina in a dramatic quarterfinal game in a heavily pro-UNC environment. Those are exactly the kinds of wins that can help influence recruits. After beating the Blue Devils in Durham, one of Hewitt's initial thoughts was about a recruit who spurned the Yellow Jackets. Hewitt had thought Tech was a slam-dunk to land the kid. But an out-of-conference coach was able to lure him away, in part by convincing the prospect that Tech would never beat Duke and thus would never win the ACC title. “I told him you're nuts. When we walked off the court at Cameron, I thought about it, ‘OK, what else can they say?'” Hewitt said. “This is a championship-caliber program. (Former coach) Bobby (Cremins) proved it. I think we're going to prove it eventually.” Mainly through stellar recruiting, Cremins built the Yellow Jackets into a Final Four-caliber program. Tech reached the national semifinals for the only time in its history in 1985, but the Yellow Jackets also won three ACC Tournament titles in 10 years and became a fixture in the NCAA Tournament. Selling Style, Atlanta, ACC, NBA Hewitt and his staff, which works tirelessly on the recruiting trail, know the only way to get back to that level is through recruiting. There's no free agency and no trading in college basketball. The only way to develop better players is to go out and recruit the best prospects, convince them to come to your school and then make them better once they arrive on campus. Tech signed a stellar class in November in 6-9 center/forward Ra'Sean Dickey, 6-1 combo guard Zam “Buck” Fredrick, 6-5 swingman Anthony Morrow and 6-7 forward Jeremis Smith. The class is ranked among the best in the country and will draw even more headlines if 6-11 center Randolph Morris chooses the Yellow Jackets over Kentucky and the NBA this spring. Hewitt knows that the vibrant city of Atlanta is a strong selling point for recruits, including many African-American youngsters who have told coaches they feel uncomfortable on some rural college campuses. Hewitt understands the tradition at Tech, which has sent a steady flow of players to the NBA, including Hewitt signee Chris Bosh as the No. 4 pick last year. (Note: The overwhelming majority of top prep prospects watch the NBA draft.) The Yellow Jackets' style, an up-tempo, push-the-ball approach, also appeals to most young players, as does their place in the best basketball conference in the country. Hewitt is fully aware of all of this, and that's one reason he has consistently denied interest in other jobs around the country. Though he continues to be rumored as a top candidate for the still-vacant St. John's job, Hewitt maintains that he is more than happy with his situation in Atlanta. Not only is Tech building in the right direction — and its break-out season is proof of that — but Hewitt's family is extremely comfortable in Atlanta. “I tell our players all the time, on a personal level, there's not a whole lot more that can make me happy,” Hewitt said. “I'm at a place where I want to coach. I enjoy coaching these guys. I'm in a great city to live in.” Those words, while likely sincere and true, probably were incomplete. One thing that definitely would make Hewitt happier would be to get past those dastardly Blue Devils, who have ruled the conference like nobody else over the last decade. Hewitt appeared a bit grumpy after the Yellow Jackets' recent loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals. He grew tired of listening to reporters wax poetically on the greatness of the Blue Devils. He suggested that if people were going to compare Tech and Duke today, they should do so in a manner limited to his stint in Atlanta. In other words, they should compare his fourth season in the conference (23-9, 9-7) with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's fourth season in the league (24-10, 7-7). “They're good. To make it anything other than they're a good program and a good team and a good coach, it's like, come on fellas,” Hewitt said of Duke. “After a while somebody is going to catch up, or they're going to give somebody else a chance to catch up to them. If it's not me, it's going to be somebody else.”