March 18, 2005
By Simit Shah –
Nashville, Tenn. — January 26, 2002 was a little over three years ago, but it seems like the span of a lifetime for Georgia Tech’s seniors. That day, the Jackets lost to Wake Forest by 13 points and fell to 0-7 in the ACC and 7-13 overall.
That season had been unkind from the start, as the squad had been humbled by the likes of Penn, IUPUI, Georgia and St. Louis in November and December. The prospects looked bleak for the program, but they were about to start a turnaround of dramatic proportions led in large part by the freshman class of B.J. Elder, Anthony McHenry, Isma’il Muhammad, and Luke Schenscher.
That quartet helped engineer a 7-2 finish to the regular season in 2002, and they barely missed an NIT berth after an opening round loss in the ACC Tournament. The following season, the addition of Chris Bosh helped propel them to a 16-15 record, and last year the team assembled their breathtaking run to the national championship game.
“Look at what they’ve done,” said coach Paul Hewitt. “They came here when we hadn’t even coached a game. Luke is the only one that committed to us after the season was over, but that group came here when we hadn’t even coached a game, so they put a lot of faith in us.”
That senior class, which also includes transfer Will Bynum, will begin their final NCAA Tournament Friday against George Washington in Nashville. In recent weeks, most of them have reflected on their college careers and the fact that it’s almost over.
Roommates Elder and Muhammad were sitting in their dorm room watching TV when the reality set in a few days ago.
Muhammad recalled, “I told him, `Man, B.J, at most, we’ve got three more weekends to play college basketball.’ He sat there and looked at me in a daze for a minute. He finally said something like, `We’ve gotta win the championship this year. We’ve gotta win.'”
“It really is about to be over,” added Elder. “It’s really up to us how long we make it last.”
The Jackets are hoping their season will last for a while with aspirations of replicating last season’s success. Tech is coming off its best stretch of the season, having won three straight games before narrowly losing to Duke in the ACC championship game.
“I think you can see that we got a little swagger back now,” said Muhammad. “We played some good basketball at the end of the regular season, and the ACC Tournament spoke for itself.”
Now the five seniors, who all appeared loose and relaxed while meeting the media Tuesday, are tasked with leading a talented group of young players into the pressure-packed NCAA Tournament.
“The biggest thing you want to tell the younger guys is not to take anything for granted, just remind them of where we were when we first came in,” stated Schenscher. “Our first year, we didn’t even make the NIT.”
“It’s something that you have to experience for yourself, and I believe that experience it going to carry us this tournament,” added Muhammad.
While the accomplishments of this senior class rank among the best in Tech’s history, Hewitt looks beyond their play on the court. He spoke at length at how important the parents of his senior class have been over the years.
“The parents are probably under-appreciated,” he explained. “People in the media and people outside don’t understand how important our parents have been, allowing us to coach through the good times and the bad times.”
Hewitt related how Muhammad’s father called from Saudi Arabia to express his support during a particularly tough stretch this season, as did Elder’s mother.
“These are two guys (Muhammad and Elder) that were physically struggling all through the year, and these people are calling me up asking me how I’m doing, asking if I’m okay,” said Hewitt.
“We talk a lot about being a family,” said McHenry. “It may sound like it’s just talk, but it’s really true with this team. We’ve been through a lot together, and that’s made us a stronger team. That’s what we’re counting on being the difference in games.”