By Jack Williams
In the Atlantic Coast Conference, where college basketball’s best players are on center stage, here comes the most unlikely prime-time guy of all – Georgia Tech’s Shaun Fein, walking out of the shadows into the spotlight.
Make that running out of the shadows.
Everyone in Georgia Tech basketball runs these days – and very fast, indeed. You have to if you don’t want to get left at the gate in the speed-up system installed by new coach Paul Hewitt. Fein, a senior from Centerville, Mass., is one of the leaders of the pack.
Fein and his Yellow Jacket teammates shoot for the stars this week when the surprising Tech team (16-11, 8-8) begins play in the annual Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament at the Georgia Dome. The Jackets play Virginia (20-7, 9-7) in the first round at 2:30 Friday afternoon.
Tech will be seeking its third win of the season over the Cavaliers. The Jackets won, 73-68, at Charlottesville and 62-56 in Atlanta. Fein was a dynamite performer at Virginia, scoring a game-high 25 points. His three-point basket as the shot clock hit zero put Tech ahead, 71-65, with 48 seconds left in that game. He had seven points in the return match.
The strange thing is that Fein ever made it to Georgia Tech at all. Snubbed by every Division I recruiter known to man when he was in high school, he has taken a long, winding road to the Yellow Jackets and ACC notoriety.
Even Hewitt, when he was an assistant coach at Villanova, had a chance to recruit Fein-and did not. “I saw him play,” the coach said. “He was a scrawny kid who could shoot the ball. I can’t tell you I thought he was going to be a diamond in the rough.”
But Hewitt sure has changed his mind since inheriting Fein as one of his team leaders at Georgia Tech. “Shaun is the consummate gym rat,” Hewitt said. “Almost every day, he and Marvin Lewis are the last players to leave the gym after taking extra shots. Shaun’s work ethic is the simple reason why he could make the successful leap from Division II to ACC basketball.”
Throughout this season, Fein (6-3, 205) has been among the Jacket leaders in scoring and has quite often played a hero’s role in Tech victories. The biggest of the big came on Dec.9 at Philips Arena in Atlanta when Fein hit the last-second shot that enabled the Jackets to upset Kentucky, 86-84. He finished with 18 points and four rebounds in that game.
“Basketball-wise, that is the biggest thing that ever happened to me,” Fein said. “To make the shot that beat a storied program like Kentucky is something I won’t forget. It was an amazing feeling. I just hope it happens again sometime along the way.”
Fein played a hero’s role in two other big Tech upsets with key baskets in the closing minutes. In a 95-89 overtime win over Wake Forest at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, he had a three-point play that put Tech ahead in the last minute of regulation and then had four free throws in overtime. In a home court victory over Maryland, he nailed a three-pointer at the 2:29 mark that gave the Jackets a 64-60 lead. Tech went on to win, 72-62.
He wound up this regular season as Tech’s No. 2 man in both scoring (13.7) and assists (60).
Good things have been happening to Fein ever since he finally made it to Georgia Tech. In his first season with the Jackets last year, he started 28 of 30 games and was the club’s third leading scorer at 10.6 points per game. He was tied for the team lead in three-point shots with 68.
After emerging as a star of his high school team at Barnstable High in Centerville, Fein played on a national AAU team alongside another current Georgia Tech player, Jon Babul. They developed a close friendship that eventually led Fein to Georgia Tech.
First, Fein went to Stonehill College, a Division II school in Easton, Mass. His prospects were so dim that even Stonehill could offer only a half scholarship the first semester he was enrolled. Fein did beat the odds and emerged as a star player at Stonehill. He made Division II third team All-America his second year there.
“After my first year at Stonehill, I went with Jon Babul’s twin brother, Mike, to visit Jon in Atlanta,” Fein said. “While there, we got into a pickup game with some of the Tech players. One of those in the pickup games was Drew Barry, and he was excited about my game. He went to Coach (Bobby) Cremins and recommended me to him.
“Nothing happened that year. But after my second year at Stonehill, Mike Babul and I visited Jon again. After another pickup game, Drew Barry went to Coach Cremins again and said, ‘You really ought to get this guy at Georgia Tech.'”
Shortly after that, Fein acquired his release from Stonehill and placed a call to Coach Cremins. The rest is history.
“Actually after my success at Stonehill, I was recruited by two Division I schools in New England, Boston College and St. Bonaventure,” he said. “But the chance to play in the ACC was something you dream about.”
Fein really likes Hewitt’s up-tempo style of play and says the system suits his game well. “You get a lot of easy shots off the fast break,” Fein said. ” I like the fact that we speed up play. It’s fun to play basketball like that.”
Fein says Hewitt’s conditioning program has made a new player out of him. “I can run faster that ever before and for longer periods of time,” he said. “The workouts were tough at the start, but it surely has paid off. I can just feel that I am in better shape.”
The Gym Rat feels his overall game has improved greatly in his time at Georgia Tech. “For one thing, I play better defense now,” he said. “But the biggest improvement has been in my confidence. I have gained confidence by playing in the tough ACC.”
Fein speaks of the ACC in glowing terms. “I can’t say for sure the ACC is tougher this year than ever before,” he said. “But I do believe the conference is the toughest in the country this year. Most of the season, the ACC has had five teams in the Top 20.”
The Jacket guard comes from an athletic family. His father, Leo, was a star baseball pitcher at Northeastern University and helped lead his team all the way to the College World Series. His brother, Mickey, was the starting quarterback for the football team at the University of Maine. Mickey now plays Arena football. He was a member of the Albany Firebirds last season, but will move on to Indianapolis next season.
Fein will graduate from Tech in May and says that will be one of the biggest accomplishments of his life. “To get a college degree is an achievement at any school,” he said. “But it’s very special at Georgia Tech. I need only seven hours to graduate. When I do, that will put a big smile on my face.”
After graduation, Fein hopes to play basketball in Europe for a period of time. He eventually wants to be college basketball coach.
But first things first. Fein has some unfinished business on the Tech basketball court. Watch out! The gym rat from Massachusetts is on the prowl-doing magical things no one ever thought he could do.