March 11, 2008
ATLANTA One last gasp.
Georgia Tech found some March momentum, winning three of its last four regular-season games dating to a March 1 victory over Wake Forest. The Yellow Jackets headed to Charlotte needing to continue that run to make the postseason.
The Jackets' late surge gave them the No. 7 seed for the ACC Tournament. They will open against Virginia, perhaps the league's worst team but the only team to beat Tech down the stretch. The Jackets need four wins for an NCAA Tournament bid and at least two (probably three) victories for an NIT or College Basketball Invitational berth.
"(Momentum is) a great thing to have, and that was our No. 1 goal," guard D'Andre Bell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution following the season finale against Boston College. "This will be a little payback (for Virginia)."
Trash talk aside, the rest of the talk about Tech revolved around whether the recent play was a fluke. And if it's real, what took so long?
The Yellow Jackets put together a similar run in late January and early February, winning three of four and giving fans hope for the postseason. But then the Jackets lost five straight games. Even with their recent success, they finished the regular season with a 14-16 overall record and a 7-9 league mark.
Coach Paul Hewitt credited his team's character and work ethic for the strong finish.
"It's nice to see these guys persevere the way they have all year," he said. "We've lost a lot of ball games as everyone knows. I don't think people realize just how hard these kids come back to practice every day. They deserve this."
They will need to earn the rest. Tech's NCAA chances are clearly defined: Capture the automatic bid by winning the ACC Tournament. The other two options, the NIT and CBI, provide murkier opportunities. Neither tournament requires invitees to have .500 or better records, although officials from both say they would prefer not to include teams with losing records. Tech would have to get to the ACC final to assure itself of a .500 record.
The Jackets likely will have to defeat Duke to get there, of course.
"(ESPN analyst) Jimmy Dykes told me before they went on the air that we are probably the team that nobody wants to play in the tournament because we do give a good effort and we have some pretty good pieces," Hewitt said. "We've been hanging around all year."
Tech's surge corresponded with improved play inside from Jeremis Smith and Zack Peacock.
Smith recorded two of his 11 double-doubles this season in the last four games and averaged 14 points in those games. Peacock averaged 15 points, proved to be a defensive menace (five steals in the win against then-No. 24 Clemson) and made clutch plays after faltering in crunch time in losses to Kansas and North Carolina earlier this season.
As valuable as their statistical contributions can be, Smith's and Peacock's toughness make Tech a contender. Both can bang with the best in the ACC, and physical play inside, particularly when it comes to rebounding, often decides the game-a-day league tournament.
Smith's season averages are up to 10 points and seven rebounds, and he's fouled out of only two games. Peacock is averaging 10 points per game and shooting 50 percent from the floor, impressive considering the large number of mid-range jump shots he takes.
They will need to give consistent efforts throughout the ACC Tournament for Tech to advance.
The Yellow Jackets also need some steadiness in the backcourt. Opponents know to smother point guard Matt Causey now, and Anthony Morrow struggles to string big games together. He can be the best player on the floor one night, invisible the next.
The x-factor is Lewis Clinch, arguably the most versatile offensive player on the roster, with his long-range shot and ability to score off the dribble. But Clinch had scored a combined 31 points in the eight games leading up to the season finale against BC, making just one of 17 three-pointers.
He showed renewed confidence against the Eagles, though, scoring 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting, including 2-of-3 from three-point range. Hewitt ribbed Clinch after the game, asking the player if he found his shooting form hiding under his bed.
"It's about my teammates and staff believing in me," Clinch told the AJC. "Every game coach tells me to play with confidence."
TOUGH SCHEDULE HURT TEAM
Hewitt blames himself for bruising his team's confidence this season with a brutal non-conference schedule. Tech played NCAA Tournament-bound opponents Winthrop, Notre Dame, Kansas, Indiana, Connecticut and Vanderbilt, losing all but one of those games.
The Yellow Jackets' regular-season schedule was considered the sixth-strongest in the country. Yet their RPI ended up in the 70s. Meanwhile, Clemson and Miami, two ACC rivals that loaded their non-conference schedules with patsies, both had 20 wins, RPIs in the 20s and at-large NCAA bids waiting.
"I have never been a guy that's paid a lot of attention to non-conference scheduling," Hewitt said. "It's burned me a couple times."
Hewitt's staff put together the schedule with the best of intentions. They thought one or both of last year's freshman phenoms, Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young, would return and a rough early season schedule would best prepare the team for ACC and NCAA play.
But Crittenton and Young both left for the NBA last summer. Not surprisingly, Tech lost those big games, despite playing well. The Jackets went 7-7 in non-conference play, bruising their psyches and leaving them little room for error in league play. They essentially needed to go 10-6 in the ACC to ensure an at-large bid. They went 7-9 instead.
"I need to do a better job of (scheduling), to be honest," Hewitt said. "I need to put together games that get TV attention and kids want to play in, but at the same time give us the best opportunity to gain confidence and victories."