December 16, 2002 ATLANTA Paul Hewitt's 2002-03 squad exhibits striking similarities to the deep, talented team he's been trying to put together since he arrived in Atlanta in 2000. So, pencil the Yellow Jackets into the NCAA Tournament, right? Well, not so fast.
Tech indeed can go 10 deep. It can play big or small. It can trap and defend. Relative to the rest of the ACC, the Yellow Jackets seem a cut below only Duke, if anyone.
But if the Jackets are to be playing with the big boys come March, they will need to score more consistently, particularly in the halfcourt offense. Despite the college game's turn toward younger players, even in the backcourt, throughout the nation, veteran guards often are the difference-makers in March.
Tech has no real veterans on the roster, with only two juniors getting significant playing time. Unfortunately for the Yellow Jackets, they are starting a true freshman point guard and have no real backup at that position. That could spell trouble when Tech enters the ACC schedule and any possible postseason play.
Jarrett Jack, a freshman who played at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts and Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina, has been the starter at point guard since he walked into camp. Hewitt also likes the abilities of Anthony McHenry, but the coach apparently has shelved the idea of playing the 6-7 sophomore at the point. Instead, McHenry has become the team's defensive stopper.
In the Yellow Jackets' first close game of the season, Hewitt called for Jack to break down the defense off the dribble. He turned it over. During the rugged ACC schedule, Jack no doubt will need a break, possibly an extended one if he falls into foul trouble.
But Tech has no real alternative to Jack, and in the end, it has no one other than possibly Jack who can break defenses down off the dribble on a consistent basis. That will put an awful lot of pressure on Tech's post players, whether or not they're ready for it.
More Required From Elder, Lewis
Unless Jack or B.J. Elder becomes more comfortable in a prominent offensive role from the backcourt, Tech will have to pound it inside or rely on a bunch of jump shooters.
Forward Isma'il Muhammad gives the Yellow Jackets a slasher, but he's better getting the ball on the move and not having to do it himself. Thus, Tech undoubtedly will face defenses designed to pack the interior, to defend Luke Schenscher, Ed Nelson and Chris Bosh inside. When that happens, the team's inability to connect on outside jumpers could become a major source of trouble.
With the graduation of point guard Tony Akins, whom the Yellow Jackets looked to down the stretch in every close game, finding someone to take and make those last-minute baskets remains a priority.
Junior guard Marvin Lewis, perhaps the team's top returning starter with the losses of Akins and Clarence Moore (until recently), seemed ready to take over as the team's go-to scorer. But in the early going, Lewis struggled with his jumper, and Hewitt moved him out of the starting lineup for a few games. At the time of the change, Lewis had started 60 of 61 games in his career at Tech.
Meanwhile, Elder has been the best shooter and scorer for the Yellow Jackets, but he also has battled foot problems. He failed to show consistency last season, scoring in double figures in 16 games, or one more than he scored in single digits. He has outstanding potential, but it looks like he'll need more time to settle into a prominent role.
Balanced Offense Needs Hot Hand
In their pre-conference games, the Yellow Jackets divvied up their shots among Elder, Lewis, Bosh and Nelson.
It represented the kind of style Hewitt wants to play, where no one player is the main focus of the offense and everyone contributes on defense.
After preaching defense, defense and more defense in preseason practice, Hewitt now is trying to get his team's point production up to par. In doing so, he's preaching the same unselfishness that applies to his philosophy at the defensive end of the floor.
Five players, including Jack, could finish the season averaging in double figures. That's an excellent sign, but the team probably will need one or two reliable go-to players if it is to make noise in the ACC standings and/or the NCAA Tournament.
It's the same question the Yellow Jackets faced at the beginning of the season, the same question player after player responded to with, We'll go to whoever is the hot hand.
Tech needs to find a hot hand, one who can be hot night after night.
More Touches For Unselfish Bosh
As much as the college game is about guard play, Tech must begin to rely more heavily on its inside players particularly Bosh.
The reigning high school player of the year, Bosh displayed a complete game in the early going. He's an exciting combination of size (6-10) and skill (you name it), and he's already capable of dominant performances at the college level. He's another example of the prep All-American who was just as good as advertised, if not better.
Nevertheless, there's no reason Bosh can't do even more than he showed in November and December. Barring some kind of freak defense, he probably should be the Yellow Jackets' leading shot-taker each and every night.
That sometimes takes Hewitt pulling Bosh aside and demanding that the soft-spoken Texan take over at times. That doesn't perfectly jive with Hewitt's preferred style of play, but on this team without an established point guard, and without a consistent outside shooter Bosh is the team's best weapon.
Bosh is a tremendous offensive rebounder, something he uses to collect easy points. But if he wants to become the team's go-to guy, he must improve on the defensive end. Huh? Hewitt demands defense from everyone, gifted offensive talents be damned. Bosh has been lackluster at times on the defensive glass, and Hewitt insists Bosh can be a dominant shotblocker.
Can Bosh take the inside pounding throughout the course of the year? That remains to be seen, but with his thrilling talents, it will be fun to watch either way.