Feb. 5, 2003
By Simit Shah – Marvin Lewis turned 20 three days before the start of this season. Not exactly a prime candidate for the role of elder statesman, but for a Georgia Tech roster peppered with underclassmen, there was no other choice than the junior for Germantown, Maryland.
“I know this team is going to put some gray hairs in my head,” coach Paul Hewitt predicted before the season. “You’ve got five sophomores and four freshmen.”
Facing long odds has been a constant during Hewitt’s short tenure on The Flats, but the 39-year-old coach has always had strong senior leadership to offset inexperience, lack of depth and injuries. Two seasons ago, there was a group of seniors that included Jon Babul, Alvin Jones, T.J. Vines and Shaun Fein, and last year point guard Tony Akins put the team on his back while engineering a miraculous turnaround after an 0-7 ACC start.
With no seniors on the roster this season, Hewitt turned to Lewis, a 6-4 guard with a silky smooth shooting touch. During his first two seasons, Lewis started virtually every game and established himself as a versatile player on both ends of the court. However, his style was to lead by example and let others do the talking.
“Tony was vocal on the court,” observed Lewis. “That’s very important. Early on last season, he was the only one talking, but he started to get all of us communicating during games, and that was the difference at the end of the season. I’ll have to be more vocal, but I’m fine with that.”
Hewitt describes Lewis as one of the brightest players he’s coached, but the newly anointed team captain struggled early in the season. Helping to acclimate the newcomers, including two freshmen starters, proved to be an uphill battle, and Lewis had difficulty getting his own game on track.
During a six-game stretch in December, he connected on only a third of his shots and averaged a paltry seven points per contest. Two one-point losses to Minnesota and Tennessee, as well as a complete meltdown at Syracuse, tested Lewis’ ability to lead the team.
“For the most part, it’s tough to build confidence when you get losses like that,” said Lewis. “Those are devastating losses, especially for young guys. It’s tough when you lose by one point. You look at your schedule and say, ‘We should be better than we are, and we know we are.'”
With the team teetering on the brink of a disastrous season, Lewis erupted for 33 points against Florida State, almost single-handedly righting the ship.
“That was a great effort,” Hewitt said following Lewis’ career-best performance. “Earlier in the year he was struggling about how to manage his new role in terms of being captain and being more vocal in the locker room and on the court. I think that detracted from his play early in the year, but he is much more comfortable now in terms of talking to guys and getting his message across.”
While he ranks third on Tech’s team in scoring average (13.4 points per game for the season), Lewis is Tech’s top scorer against ACC teams at 17.7 points a game. He has made 56.7 percent of his shots against the league and 52.9 percent of his three-point attempts, shedding his complementary player role of his first two years to become one of the team’s primary scorers.
“In the beginning, I was concentrating on being vocal and letting everyone know what needed to be done, but you still have to lead by example,” Lewis explained. “You still have to play and do the things that you’ve done in the past. That’s what I struggled with. I definitely feel more at ease now.”
His offensive resurgence has been a key to the Jackets streaking to six wins in eight games, including four ACC victories. In conference play, Lewis is sixth in scoring with nearly 18 points per game, and he is second only to teammate Chris Bosh in field goal percentage.
Off the court, the management major has done a tremendous job taking the freshmen under his wing and educating them about the rigors of life in the ACC.
“I just look up to him as a player and as a student,” said Bosh, a freshman forward. “Whenever there’s something I don’t know, I ask him. He makes sure we’re aware at all times.”
“There are going to be growing pains with young players,” noted Lewis, “but they’re stepping up to the challenge. They’re intense, and that’s what it takes to get better and win.”
The biggest challenge that Lewis has faced is preparing the youthful squad for tough road games, and the squad has yet to win on an opponent’s court. Playing in front of hostile crowds around the ACC has rattled plenty of freshmen over the years, but Lewis has instilled an “us against the world” mentality.
“All you can say to the 15 guys that travel is, ‘It’s just us.’ We’ve got to stay together despite all the fans and the runs that they’ll make,” he said. “We have to stay together. The players have to make plays, and you have to make them wherever you are.”
“I think he’s done a great job,” praised guard B.J. Elder. “We’re coming together as a team, and he’s the guy making that happen. He helps us stay focused on the court, and he always has the right advice for the young guys.”