December 1, 2003 ATLANTA After Georgia Tech's season-opening victory against Louisiana-Lafayette, an impressive but expected win, Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt admonished the media for dismissing his team. Tech was picked to finish seventh in the ACC after losing forwards Chris Bosh (NBA) and Ed Nelson (transfer to Connecticut) prematurely. I'm amused when I read that Georgia Tech doesn't have anybody left, there's no one at Tech, Hewitt said. If that's the case, then me and my assistant coaches haven't done our job. In November, Hewitt enjoyed a good laugh about the entire matter. If his team continues to play the way it did in the opening month of the season, the coach and his players also will get the last laugh about those pessimistic preseason predictions. Tech rolled to the Preseason NIT title with a high-energy style, employing fierce defensive pressure and a constantly running offense. Sure, the Yellow Jackets don't have Bosh and Nelson, but they finally have the type of team Hewitt loves: deep, versatile and athletic. The coach said as much in October, and he was right, even if few were listening. The offensive emergence of forward Isma'il Muhammad. The leadership of forward Clarence Moore. The maturation of point guard Jarrett Jack. Hewitt said he saw those things coming. The media, focused on the losses of Bosh and Nelson, may have missed them, or at least underestimated them. Once guard Will Bynum becomes eligible (in mid-December) and center Theodis Tarver returns from a dislocated kneecap (likely in early January), the Yellow Jackets will go 11 deep. That will allow Tech to push the tempo on offense and defense, and to see if opponents can run with them. Tech got its biggest challenge from No. 1 Connecticut in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT. Surely the Yellow Jackets wouldn't be able to out-athlete the Huskies, and surely they wouldn't be able to beat them on the glass. But Tech did both, managing to out-run the Huskies and out-rebound them. Tech's early success story provided strong evidence that Hewitt's recruiting approach and game plans are coming together nicely. A very strong recruiting class also is on its way. Each of those four players top-50 center/forward Ra'Sean Dickey, top-100 combo guard Zam Frederick, top-125 (and widely underrated, according to Hewitt) combo forward Jeremis Smith and top-150 swingman Anthony Morrow can play multiple positions, as the coach likes. And the intelligent and engaging Hewitt likely will continue to stockpile players, especially if this season turns out as well as it looks currently. No team Tech will face in the pre-ACC season has as much talent as the Huskies, and the Yellow Jackets will be favored against every one of them. A 13-0 non-conference start is not out of the question, although in the modern era it probably would be unwise to expect as much. Tech opens its ACC regular season at North Carolina on Jan. 11. While it's early, and UNC's ugly journey from Preseason NIT champs to Postseason NIT invitees is just a year old, the Yellow Jackets definitely look like an NCAA team. No matter what happens the rest of the way, victories against Connecticut and Texas Tech will look really good to the selection committee. Importantly, the Yellow Jackets' strong start also erased some of the doubts that were beginning to form around the program. Hewitt, who signed a contract extension in the offseason despite making just one NCAA Tournament in his first three years in Atlanta, has been excellent at hauling talent into the program. Now he's showing signs that he can mold that talent into a very productive team. Guard B.J. Elder and Muhammad, both athletic players capable of holding more than one position, were Hewitt's first two signees. They immediately bought into the program, and they are keying its ascent. Elder is the team's top offensive weapon. Muhammad is the overpowering athletic presence who is maturing as a player. Both juniors came from the Atlanta area. If Hewitt is successful in rebuilding the Yellow Jackets into a perennial NCAA Tournament team and eventually an ACC power, then Elder and Muhammad will be viewed as the starting point. Bobby Cremins had high school hotshots John Salley and Mark Price. Hewitt has the less heralded Elder and Muhammad. Football Deflated By Weak Finish The confidence surrounding Hewitt's team again is lacking from the Tech football program. The Yellow Jackets lost three of their last four regular-season games, falling from a potential Gator Bowl spot to a 6-6 record and a place in the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho. Tech's 17-point, season-ending loss at home to Georgia was so expected, so routine, that it left little room for commentary. The Bulldogs, who draw the ire of Tech fans far more than any ACC school, have so clearly established their dominance in this series that victory appears unlikely for the Yellow Jackets any time in the near future. Tech is 21-18 overall since defeating Georgia in November 2000. Consecutive seasons of seven wins Tech will have a third straight if it finds a way to beat Boise State in the Humanitarian Bowl are not a sign of progress. The program has at least temporarily stalled. It's competitive enough to get bowl-eligible but not competitive enough to really compete for anything of more significance. And things will only get tougher next season, when the ACC expands to include Miami and Virginia Tech. Second-year coach Chan Gailey, who's still viewed with great skepticism by most Tech fans, made a bold decision in naming true freshman Reggie Ball his quarterback in fall practice. Ball's energy and mobility helped the Yellow Jackets win games and win fans. But he displayed a tendency to become too emotional, and his accuracy no doubt needs improvement. The emotions got the best of him again versus Georgia, when he departed with a concussion. Once he left, Tech's already modest hopes shrunk considerably. As solidly as Ball played this season, this isn't basketball. No single player can win games without a lot of help from his teammates. As Ball's father told reporters after the Georgia loss, You can't take on 11 guys by yourself. And, realistically speaking, even Ball wasn't beyond reproach this season. He did well for a freshman but he was one of the least productive starting quarterbacks in the ACC. As long as defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta sticks around every offseason, his name is floated as a potential college head coach or NFL assistant the Yellow Jackets will be competitive on defense. Will Tenuta stay for a third season on the Flats? That's anybody's guess. He got more air time than Shawshank Redemption re-runs this fall, and he's always had one eye on his next career move. Central Florida, where the athletic director is former Tech assistant AD Steve Orsini, reportedly has Tenuta on its short list of candidates to replace the fired Mike Kruczek. But the offense this season and likely next depended too much on Ball creating plays with his feet. Besides freshman running back Rashaun Grant, there's little speed in the program at the skill positions. Star receiver Jonathan Smith, who made loads of big plays in the passing game and on special teams, was a senior this fall. Query: Are Bowl Trips Enough? Last offseason got about as bad as it could on the Flats. Compounding the problems in the program were a floundering finish on the field, academic troubles off the field, and an awkward, well-publicized letter to supporters from Tech athletic director Dave Braine. Now this offseason is shaping up to be much the same. There's still a faction of boosters who want Braine removed. They quieted down during the season, which looked solid until the last four games, but the sorry end surely will give them more motivation. Gailey, an honest and hard-working man, will continue to do what is best for the program, but it's not certain if that will come fast enough. Can he keep the Yellow Jackets afloat and bowl-eligible? Probably. Can he take the Yellow Jackets toward the top of the ACC? It appears unlikely. Can he beat the Bulldogs? Not unless something drastic happens to one of the programs, or both. In this era of college football with some coaches being fired after 9-3 seasons and possible replacements interviewed even before the head coach is gone even a winning record doesn't guarantee job security. At some point, the Tech administration will have to decide: Is barely winning enough, or is winning big the ultimate objective?