by Jack Williams
| Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt talks with guard Tony Akins during an Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament game against North Carolina.|
(AP Photo/Bob Jordan)
Georgia Tech Director of Athletics Dave Braine told his new basketball coach Paul Hewitt last fall not to expect a fast getaway in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference. As it turns out, Braine might as well have been telling Citation or Secretariat to take it nice and easy in the Kentucky Derby.
Hewitt, a thoroughbred among college coaches, knows exactly where he wants to go and he’s in a hurry to get there. He and his Yellow Jackets took a giant step in the right direction this season.
Tech broke even in ACC games (9-9), counting the league tournament, almost made the championship game of the Tournament and scored a bunch of major victories, over Virginia (three times), Maryland, Wake Forest, UCLA and Kentucky. Hewitt was voted ACC Coach of the Year.
Now, look where the Jackets are. Tech (17-12) made the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 1996 and will meet a tough St. Joseph’s team (25-6) the first round of the West Regional at San Diego, Calif., Thursday afternoon at 2:42 p.m. (EST). The game will be televised by CBS.
Reflecting on Hewitt’s first days at Tech when he talked about playing for an NCAA bid, Braine says “I told him not to say it. I told him we wouldn’t win two games in the conference his first year¯that it would take time. Shows you how smart I am.”
The truth is Braine must be very smart, indeed, because he’s the man who hired Hewitt in the first place.
Hewitt, however, is much too modest to take credit for Tech’s success. “I don’t think we over-achieved,” Hewitt says. “We just lived up to our potential. These guys are good basketball players. Coach (Bobby) Cremins would not have recruited them if they weren’t outstanding players.
“I thought all along we had a good chance to make the NCAA field. There are a number of reasons. First, we had Alvin Jones inside. We had four other seniors who have been through the wars. Also, we had a good point guard in Tony Akins who had averaged in double figures and had been a key assist man. So, I thought if we got into good condition and played together, we had a real chance.”
Hewitt compares the Tech situation this year to that of Boston College, the team that surprised everyone in the Big East Conference.
“That’s what I love about basketball,” Hewitt said. “If you can get guys to play together, good things can happen. It’s a team game. Boston College was 3-13 in the Big East last season. They came back this year and played team basketball, had an unusual amount of togetherness and won both the Big East regular season and tournament championships.”
Hewitt says the NCAA bid makes him particularly happy for the Tech senior players. “That’s why they came to Georgia Tech in the first place,” he said. “Coach Cremins had built a great tradition here. It was just assumed that Tech would be in the NCAA Tournament every year. I’m so glad these senior players finally made it. They have worked hard to get this opportunity.”
| Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt directs players during practice in Atlanta, Tuesday, March 13, 2001. Georgia Tech is scheduled to play St. Joseph’s in the NCAA West Regionals, Thursday in San Diego.|
(AP Photo/Ric Feld)
The Tech coach speaks in glowing terms of each of his seniors. “Alvin Jones deserves everything he gets,” Hewitt said. “He’s worked so hard and played so well this season. When you don’t win, the big man on the team usually draws the most criticism and that happened with Alvin. People forget he was on course when I came here to become only the fourth ACC player to score 1,000 points, grab 1,000 rebounds and have 400 blocked shots.”
The Tech coach also salutes seniors Shaun Fein, who has had a terrific year; Jon Babul, perhaps the most underrated player on the team; T J. Vines, always a key man off the bench; and super-charged sub Darryl LaBarrie.
Perhaps the most improved of them all is LaBarrie, who saw limited playing time before Hewitt arrived. “Darryl has a good feel for the game of basketball, especially offensively,” the coach says. “He benefits from our system of play where we have a lot of ball movement and share the basketball. Darryl gets lots of opportunities to take his man to the basket off the dribble.”
LaBarrie was a star in Tech’s ACC Tournament win over Virginia, scoring 13 points and hitting a key three-pointer in the stretch drive.
Tech has drawn a tough NCAA opener against a St. Joseph’s team that swept the Atlantic 10 regular season championship this year. If the Jackets win, they likely will face Stanford, the nation’s No. 1 team, in the second round.
St. Joseph’s is led by a sharp-shooting guard named Marvin O’Connor. Proving what a small world this really is, Hewitt originally won the recruiting war for O’Connor when the coach was an assistant at Villanova. “He’s a Philadelphia kid who really is an outstanding scorer,” Hewitt said. “He played at Villanova earlier, but transferred to St. Joe’s.”
This writer is quite familiar with St. Joseph’s, too. During a stint at Virginia Tech, the Hokies played in the Atlantic 10 alongside St. Joe’s. My most vivid memory of St. Joseph’s basketball is the team’s student mascot, The Hawk.
Throughout the course of St., Joseph’s games, The Hawk flaps his wings non-stop. It is my understanding the school recruits students for that position and awards the winner a scholarship.
I am not making this up. The Hawk flaps his wings every second of every St., Joseph’s game. Once when The Hawk visited Blacksburg, the Virginia Tech Hokie Bird flashed a sign at The Hawk which read, “For heaven’s sakes, please stop flapping. You’re making me tired.”
The Hawk will be in San Diego for the start of the NCAA. So will Paul Hewitt and his Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets who hope to flap a few wings of their own.