There’s a new sheriff in town.
In the world of Georgia Tech basketball, there has been a big change at the top since last season. The Yellow Jackets have closed the book on a very successful era under the popular Bobby Cremins – 13 post-season appearances, one Final Four and three Atlantic Coast Conference championships. There is no other way to characterize the past 19 seasons of Tech hoops.
Tech fans now look forward to see what the future holds under one of the up-and-coming mentors in the college game – Paul Hewitt. In many ways, the former top man at Siena has big shoes to fill. In other ways, there is an opportunity to inject new life into a nationally-respected program that has fallen short of its goals the past couple of seasons.
The 36-year-old Hewitt, who revived a down-trodden program at Siena and has coached at an established major power at Villanova, has rallied the troops in the aftermath of the upheaval that a coaching change brings.
Those close to the scene are positive that Hewitt will continue the tradition that Cremins built, because Tech’s new head man brings an impressive track record to his new post: 66 wins and two post-season appearances in three years at Siena, and before that, four post-season appearances and 103 wins in five years as an assistant coach at Villanova.
Another tangible change for the Jackets will be their style of play. Hewitt brings with him from Siena the popular full-court running and pressing style used in many programs in college basketball today, and also a commitment to individual instruction that he hopes will translate into an exciting on-court experience for the players and fans alike.
“It will be high-intensity and fast paced, and most importantly, hopefully, successful,” said Hewitt. “It’s a style that players like to play and fans like to watch. A lot of points are scored. We’ll be getting a lot of guys involved in the game. It will be something everyone will enjoy. We’re going to press; we’re going to run every possession. We’re going to be smart.
“One of my big objectives as a coach is to teach the players about the game, not necessarily teach them plays. I want to teach them about the game, so we’re going to spend an awful lot of time on individual instruction. That’s a major emphasis in our program.”
What hasn’t changed a lot is the Tech roster. Eight players with significant playing time last year return, including six with starting experience, a veteran presence that gives the Jackets a solid foundation. Three newcomers give Hewitt and Tech the numbers to employ the full-court style. The system also relies on shooting ability, and Hewitt believes he has the shooters to make it go.
“We have a very good core of shooters,” said Hewitt. “Ballhandling, passing and shooting are going to be very important for everybody. That’s basketball. Everybody’s got to be able to shoot, dribble and pass. I’m anxious to get the freshmen in here and add to this group. We need more depth, and we will continue to add more depth.”
Leading the Jackets’ holdovers are the inside and outside anchors of center Alvin Jones and point guard Tony Akins. Both players appear recharged at the prospect of playing in Hewitt’s new system.
“It was very important for us that they stayed, not simply because of their ability to help us win basketball games,” said Hewitt. “It was also important endorsement to this coaching staff. It was nice that they said, ‘Let’s give these guys a shot.’ That was important to us, and also to the rest of the players in the program.”
Jones, a 6-11 senior, returns as the No. 7 shot-blocker in Atlantic Coast Conference history (324, a Tech record) and the league’s leader in rebounds (763) among active players, which ranks eighth in Tech history. Hewitt looks forward to having Jones at the back of his pressing defense.
“Plain and simple, every coach would like to have a guy back there who can block shots, rebound and be the anchor of the defense,” said Hewitt. “I don’t think there is a coach in the country who would walk in and say they wouldn’t take him.
“At the same time, he can be even more of a weapon if he can come around at the offensive end. He showed he can do things offensively in his freshman and sophomore years, and we need to get him back to that level. The big thing we’re working on with him is refining his post moves.”
The Lakeland, Fla., native had an off-year offensively in 1999-2000, averaging 9.7 points per game and shooting only 44.4 percent from the floor, but he improved tremendously from the free throw line (61.5 percent from 53.4 his first two years). Hewitt believes Jones can return to the level of his sophomore year, when he averaged 12.7 points (third on the Tech team) and shot 52.3 percent from the field.
The 5-11 Akins, a deft left-handed shooter, returns as the point guard, but Hewitt has plans to give him minutes at the shooting guard spot to take advantage of his long-range marksmanship.
The former Georgia “Mr. Basketball” from Lilburn, Ga., was Tech’s second-leading scorer as a sophomore last year at 11.5 points per game. He shot 36.8 percent from three-point range to lead the squad and ranked third in the ACC with 2.3 treys per game. In one game at Florida State last year, Akins achieved a career-best 33 points by making nine of 14 attempts from beyond the arc. He also demonstrated the same ability in a quartet of 20-point games his freshman year, thus giving Hewitt the confidence to play him at the off-guard position at times. Defensively, Akins paced the Jackets in steals with 35.
“One of the things with Tony is that he’s a terrific shooter from what I can see,” said Hewitt. “I’d like to get him in a position where he can play off the ball sometimes, to take advantage of his ability to shoot the ball. He can be a weapon on the wing, and if we can develop some other guys to take some of the ballhandling load off him, we might find a little more explosive player in Tony.”
Akins has plenty of help in the backcourt with seniors Shaun Fein and T.J. Vines, a pair of hustling veterans who have good shooting ability and steady ballhandling.
The 6-3 Fein started 28 of Tech’s 30 games last year and was Tech’s third-leading scorer at 10.6 points per game. He also shot 36.6 percent from beyond the three-point line and posted Tech’s best assist-turnover ratio (1.75-1). Vines, only 5-10 but as hard-nosed as they come, has averaged more than 21 minutes and nearly two assists per game over his career, which has included 17 starts. A tough defender, Vines led Tech with 38 steals as a sophomore, has kept turnovers to a minimum and shot better than 35 percent from three-point range.
“I love Shaun’s passion for the game,” Hewitt said. “He seems to love to play. The first couple of times he worked out individually, he wasn’t feeling well, but yet he was out there giving it everything he had. He can shoot the basketball, which I put a premium on. We can always find a place on the floor for a shooter. That’s why we work so hard on that.
“T.J.’s a good shooter and a very good athlete who pushes the ball up the floor. He’s a guy that will definitely see some playing time.”
Further depth in the backcourt will come from 6-3 senior Darryl LaBarrie, a Decatur, Ga., native in his third year at Tech after transferring from Florida A&M, and 6-3 freshman Marvin Lewis from Germantown, Md., who is expected to make an immediate impact with his shooting ability.
LaBarrie played in 12 games last year and 31 as a sophomore, averaging 2.9 points over than span and finding ways to score despite limited minutes. The most highly regarded of Tech’s incoming freshmen, Lewis earned honorable mention all-America honors by USA Today after averaging 18.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists for Montrose Christian School as a senior. Lewis, ranked among the nation’s top 50 prep stars by Bob Gibbons, hit 44 percent of his three-point attempts.
“Darryl LaBarrie’s a basketball player,” said Hewitt. “He’s not going to blow you away with spectacular athleticism, but he’s cagey. He can make shots, and he handles the ball well. He’s going to play. He can get the other kids to rally around him. Marvin Lewis may be one of the top shooters in the country coming into college this year.”
Tech has additional help in the backcourt from a pair of walk-on seniors in 5-10 Kyle Perry (Snellville, Ga.) and 6-1 Winston Neal (Greenville, Ga.), and sophomore Ross Chouest (Galliano, La.), a red-shirt last season who was a high school teammate of Tech sophomore Clarence Moore.
Tech’s biggest loss from last season was 7-foot Jason Collier, a second-team all-ACC choice who led the Yellow Jackets in scoring (17.0 points per game) and rebounding (9.2 per game). As a result, Tech will be smaller, but quicker along the front line. After Jones, Tech has a pair of athletic performers in 6-7 senior Jon Babul and the 6-4 Moore as the likely starters at forward, with 6-8 junior Michael Isenhour the only other holdover.
Babul, a tough inside player with a nose for the ball on the boards and a tenacious defender, played in only 17 games last year because of a chronic right quadriceps injury. Off-season surgery mended the problem, and the North Attleboro, Mass., native has recovered. Babul averaged only 3.6 points and 3.9 rebounds last year while hobbled, but posted a 5.3 scoring and a 6.0 rebound average as a sophomore.
At small forward, Moore has an opportunity to blossom in Hewitt’s system with his athleticism and ability to make things happen on the court. An inside player in high school, Moore has spent the off-season continuing his transition to wing player. Nicknamed “Mo,” Moore averaged 4.8 points and 3.9 rebounds overall last year, and ranked third on the squad with 29 steals and 15 blocked shots despite averaging just 18 minutes a game. The Norco, La., native demonstrated his potential in a brief five-game trial as a starter, averaging 10.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals while shooting 48.6 percent from the field.
“Jon is a tough, hard worker. We really need to keep him healthy, and he’ll be a big factor for us. He’s another guy with a great work ethic,” said Hewitt. “He’s responded very well. He was a little weak when he started playing pickup with the guys, but he says he feels good.
“Mo is a terrific athlete with an awful lot of potential. He’s a guy I wish we could work out with every day. He has a chance to be a special player. I think we can improve his skill level, and he’s one of those guys that can be very tough to guard.”
Isenhour (Lawrenceville, Ga.) saw limited action (12 games) last year, his first after transferring from Air Force, and shot 46.2 percent from the floor.
Reserve help comes from the freshman class in 6-6 wingman Halston Lane (Oak Rodge, Tenn.), who also gives the Jackets the ability to go bigger in the backcourt, and 6-9 athletic forward Robert Brooks (Saginaw, Mich.).
Both players earned honorable mention all-America recognition as prep stars, Lane by USA Today and Brooks by Street & Smith’s. Lane, rated among Bob Gibbons’ top 100 seniors, averaged 23.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists as a senior, finishing his prep career at Oak Ridge High School’s all-time leading scorer (2,119 points) and rebounder (800). Brooks, who originally signed with Eastern Kentucky but was released from his letter-of-intent, averaged 10.3 points and 10.1 rebounds as a senior at Arthur Hill High School.
“Like Lewis, Halston Lane also is a terrific shooter, and he has great size,” said Hewitt. “The thing I like about both of them is they have great size for perimeter players, and they can shoot the ball. That goes back to the thing about having a core of great shooters.
“Robert Brooks is a 6-9 kid with great athletic ability, and he’s a tough kid. He doesn’t mind sticking his nose in, and he doesn’t back down from anything. He has to get stronger and put on some weight. In terms of athleticism, running the floor, being around the basket and getting his hands on the basketball, he’s very good.”
Hewitt is confident that the numbers, athletic ability, shooting skills and work ethic are present to make the Jackets competitive and fun to watch.
“This is a great shooting group,” Hewitt said. “Alvin Jones brings a tremendous presence inside as a rebounder and shot-blocker. He has a chance to be one of the best players in the ACC next year. Overall, the thing I’ve been the most impressed with is the attitude. It’s been terrific. They have done everything I’ve asked them to do, and they continue to do that. I’m anxious to get the freshmen in here and add to this group.
“If you’re in great physical condition, and you play a pace where conditioning becomes a factor by the end of a game, then whatever athleticism you have to your advantage or disadvantage begins to level out. You have to be in great shape.”
Tech will be tested, to be sure. Aside from the always-rugged ACC slate, Tech leaves the comfortable confines of Alexander Memorial Coliseum to face Iowa in the ACC-Big Ten Classic, UCLA in the Wooden Classic, Kentucky in the Delta Classic and possibly Stanford in its December tournament.
“It’s challenging,” Hewitt said. “At Villanova, we played Duke and Kentucky in the same year once and we thought that was tough. Now we’ve got Duke two times, Carolina two times, and we’ve got Kentucky and UCLA. But that’s one of the reasons why you come to this league – the challenge of playing the best. It’s the best basketball league in the country; I don’t care what anybody has to say. You call kids around the country, and they all say it. If there’s one conference they want to play in, it’s the ACC. It’s got the best tradition. It turns out the most pros. It’s the most competitive. It’s the best.”
“So let’s see how hard we work, how much effort we put forth, how we approach every game, and how hard we play. If we’re just not good enough, we’ll find out in the game. But if we prepare, we’re in great shape and we play as hard as we can, I’ll take my chances.”