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A Time of Optimism

Oct. 16, 2009

by Jon Cooper
Contributing Editor

ATLANTA — Georgia Tech basketball coach Paul Hewitt wore a “cat that swallowed the canary” look as he met the media Tuesday to discuss today’s start of practice for the 2009-10 season.

Sure, the start of every season is a time for optimism, but the attitude heading into the upcoming season seems different, in a very good way.

Maybe it’s because there haven’t been expectations this high on The Flats since the fall of 2004, when Tech began the year ranked No. 3 in preseason polls, following a run to the `04 championship game.

Several publications have put Tech in their preseason top 25, and have the Yellow Jackets finishing as high as second in the ACC behind only North Carolina.

“I think these guys know that if everything goes right, we have a chance to be as good as anyone in the ACC,” said Hewitt, who brings a 154-131 record (60-84 in the ACC) into his 10th season as Tech’s coach. “If you are as good as anyone in the ACC, then you can compete for anything that comes after that. I like where we are and we will see where it goes from here.”

Hewitt feels a rebound from last year’s 12-19 season (2-14 in the ACC) is possible because this year’s team is better equipped to handle the kind of adversity that brought down last year’s squad.

“I think the big thing is that we’re healthier, deeper, and more talented,” he said. “I thought [last year’s] frontcourt was as good as any in the league maybe with the exception of North Carolina’s. I think our backcourt will be the big difference this year. Last year, we basically played with one ball handler in Iman Shumpert after the injury to Moe [Miller]. “

Miller’s status is again uncertain, as the junior guard recovers from the effects of his third concussion in less than a year. The latest setback came a few weeks ago, when he was in a car accident.

While missing Miller is disappointing, the team’s psyche is bolstered by the return of senior swingman D’Andre Bell, who is working his way back to game shape after sitting out all of last season after undergoing surgery for spinal stenosis.

Shumpert’s emergence at the point as a freshman was one of last season’s bright spots, and incoming freshman Mfon Udofia will get an opportunity to compete at the point. Another freshman, Glen Rice, Jr., provides shooting — What else would you expect? — and depth.

Then there is the front line, which adds the nation’s top recruit in Derrick Favors to a group that already features senior Zachery Peacock and junior Gani Lawal. Lawal considered then ultimately turned down the temptation of the NBA to stay in school. Freshman Brian Oliver is a solid defender with a nice touch who could contribute.

Perhaps the biggest advantage this year’s team has is the memory of last season.

“We were there in every game,” said Hewitt, of last year’s team which lost 11 games by seven points or less. “At the end of the games, we just didn’t take care of the ball as much as we would have liked and we didn’t make free throws. But that’s a different team compared to today in terms of depth and health.”

That depth was bolstered by a recruiting class which Athlon Sports ranked as fifth in the nation.

Heading that list is Favors. Hewitt smiled as he talked about the 6-foot-10, 234-pound center from South Atlanta High.

“I sit and watch his individual [workouts] and I wish I could have the ability he has and the length that he has,” added Peacock. “It’s just amazing to watch him.”

Getting all these youngsters prepped for ACC play is a big job, one that has begun.

“You’re going to make mistakes, but you have to keep going. Don’t think about the mistake you made,” said Peacock. “[Coach O’Connor] likes to call it having no gaps, get into the next play. That’s the biggest thing I try to teach them. You can see sometimes they start thinking about a play or getting down on themselves, but that’s what we’re there for, to motivate them.”

Hewitt expects a motivated group to take the floor today in the inaugural practice at the Zelnak Center.

“I don’t think anybody is going to accept anyone taking minutes from them,” Hewitt said. “We haven’t scrimmaged in an organized setting. It’s going to be competitive, I know that much.”

“Who wants to sit on the bench?” agreed Peacock. “That kind of drives each player to put his maximum effort every time.”

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