March 14, 2005 ATLANTA Paul Hewitt knows how important beating Duke and North Carolina is for his program. Beating them at the ACC Tournament is just that much better.
In order for the Yellow Jackets or any other conference team, for that matter to power their way into the upper echelon of the league and national discussion, they must confront the twin towers of the ACC. Maryland has done it, at least against Duke.
Now Tech is beginning to do it against North Carolina, having beaten the Tar Heels in five of the teams' last eight meetings, including back-to-back years in the ACC Tournament. Duke remains a far different story. The Yellow Jackets have managed just one victory in their last 20 games against the Blue Devils, including the loss in this year's ACC title game.
Victories against the heavyweights remain the quickest and easiest way to the hearts and minds of current high school athletes.
"It always comes back to recruiting," Hewitt said.
To Hewitt, it does. That's why he rails against the perceived bias of ESPN analyst Dick Vitale. The two had a spirited conversation on an Atlanta-area sports talk radio station in late February, with Hewitt claiming that Vitale's "cheerleading" for Duke and Carolina made the coach's job more difficult.
Hewitt, along with other league coaches, notably Maryland's Gary Williams, often complain about the league's perceived preferential treatment of Duke and North Carolina, in terms of scheduling, television and marketing not to mention officiating. It's seen, certainly in circles outside of Tobacco Road, that the other league schools are simply supporting actors in the Duke-Carolina production.
Prior to the 2003-04 season, the league coaches gathered for a preseason photo shoot. The photographer positioned Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and new North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who had yet to coach in the league, in the middle. The other coaches, including Maryland's Williams (who recently had won an NCAA title), were lined around the two centerpieces.
That's just one small example of why Hewitt complains that the league markets Duke-Carolina as its biggest, most important game each season, regardless of the previous season's results. In his on-air conversation with Vitale, Hewitt argued that Duke-Maryland had replaced Duke-Carolina as the conference's premier rivalry, in terms of competitiveness.
In fairness, the league has been tremendously successful while marketing Duke and Carolina as its main attractions. The Blue Devils attract the highest television ratings in the sport, and North Carolina is near the top of all other schools. The rivalry has produced hundreds of great moments and helped move the conference into its position as the best and most-watched in the country. From the league's standpoint, if it ain't broke, well, then why mess with it?
That's why, as Maryland's Williams discovered, the court is the best place to make progress. Victories can't be spun away completely. They simply stand on their own, especially when they occur on the road (Tech beat Duke at Cameron last season), at the ACC Tournament or in the NCAA Tournament. And especially when the a team can follow up a Final Four appearance with an ACC run, proving it's not a flash in the pan.
Recruits take notice. Some, including Tech point guard Jarrett Jack, want to establish their own legacy. Many more want to go to a place that is having success and will continue to do so.
"We've been a pretty good team in 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 after last year's ACC Tournament victory against North Carolina. "If we can get on equal footing with them (Duke and UNC) again, if we keep knocking down the walls that you have to get around or climb over to get the top players. That's what it's about, getting good players that will come to your school and do the work and help you win games. 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."
Hewitt has good players. Now he's building a program that should continue to attract more. After all, that formula certainly has worked well for Duke and UNC.
Hewitt Substitutions Going West
For all the work coaches do trying to lure high-profile (and high-talent) recruits to campus, recruiting often comes down to luck.
Take the case of Tech sophomore Mario West. Tech stumbled upon West, who played high school ball just outside of Atlanta, while scouting Josh Smith, who skipped college and headed straight to the NBA. West, playing against Smith, impressed the coaching staff with his athleticism.
Without an available scholarship, Hewitt offered West a chance to be a walk-on. West, despite being offered scholarships by smaller schools, jumped at the chance. He earned a grant during his redshirt season with his tenacious defense and boundless energy.
Now West is playing a significant role for the Yellow Jackets. With defensive standout Isma'il Muhammad limited by tendonitis in his right knee, West emerged as the team's best on-ball defender, called on to chase the other team's best perimeter player all over the court.
In the ACC Tournament victory against UNC, West clearly affected point guard Raymond Felton, who spent much of the game complaining about West's physical style. West accepted the role, playing defense and rebounding effectively without disrupting the Jackets' offense.
West's emergence allowed Hewitt to become even more liberal in his substitution patterns. Hewitt effectively used dead balls and television stoppages to maneuver offense-defense substitutions throughout the season and, especially, in the postseason. West's versatility allowed Hewitt to use him at various times to spell Jack, B.J. Elder and Anthony Morrow on the defensive end.
Perhaps as much as any other college coach in the nation, Hewitt utilizes offense-defense substitutions. At times, his constant rotating leaves the Yellow Jackets with odd combinations on the floor, particularly on the offensive end, where West, Muhammad and Anthony McHenry are limited.
The approach can work well. When foul trouble limited the Jackets, who already were without Muhammad, in the ACC Tournament, Hewitt effectively managed his team through the games with the offense-defense subbing.
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