Oct. 12, 2005
ATLANTA – When you lose five seniors to graduation and your point guard to the NBA draft, fans and close observers of your program are bound to wonder how good your team will be. But for Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt, the start of this season’s practice is another chance to build a contender.
The Yellow Jackets are coming off their second consecutive 20-win season and second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, but in order to extend that streak to three, Hewitt will be looking to find quality depth from an 11-man roster and a point guard he can rely on.
When the sixth-year head coach spoke with members of the local media Tuesday, he sounded as optimistic as he did the day he took the job in April of 2000 and said the Yellow Jackets could make the NCAA Tournament field after missing out four straight years.
“They say, ‘You going to win it all this year, coach?’ They’re enthusiastic,” said Hewitt, recalling moments during the off-season when Tech fans ask about his program. “I don’t think that many of them know who’s back, who’s gone, all that stuff. For the most part, they see college basketball and know Georgia Tech has been good, and hopefully will be good again. I expect us to be good again.
“People outside our first year at Siena and our first year here had low expectations because of how things had been going. But once you go along and establish yourself, they always have high expectations, which is a good thing.”
So what is the general consensus out there about the Yellow Jackets?
“That we’re going to be good, and they should think that way. You set a level of expectation, and you have to live up to it every year.”
In order to live up to those expectations this year, the Yellow Jackets will need to replace six players who each started 21 games or more, the heaviest losses of any team in the ACC save North Carolina, and the most for any Yellow Jacket team ever. Those six players played 75.1 percent of the minutes for Tech last year, formed the starting lineup for every game, scored 79.2 percent of the points and took 62.1 percent of the rebounds.
Only one player, 6-9 senior center/forward Theodis Tarver, has started a game for Tech. He started all three games of the Yellow Jackets’ NIT run in 2003, averaging 6.7 points and 4.0 rebounds while hitting all eight of his field goal attempts and recording five assists.
The bulk of Tech’s playing time will fall to its sophomore class of Anthony Morrow, a 6-5 guard, Ra’Sean Dickey, a 6-9 center, Jeremis Smith, a 6-6 forward, and Zam Fredrick, a 6-0 guard. All but Fredrick played key roles for Tech during the latter part of last season, combining to average 13.7 points a game. Fredrick, a prolific scorer in high school, spent most of the season learning the point guard position.
Hewitt and his staff have added four freshmen to the mix in 6-9 center/forward Alade Aminu, 6-5 wingman D’Andre Bell and 6-3 guard Lewis Clinch. Paco Diaw, a 6-6 guard from Dakar, Senegal who attended high school in Atlanta, enrolled at Tech in the fall and is eligible to play this year.
While Fredrick made strides learning the point guard position throughout last season, Hewitt will also take a look at 6-4 junior Mario West and Diaw as possibilities for the job. West is the strongest defender, always a priority for Hewitt, while Diaw is an excellent passer and has the length physically that Hewitt likes in a point guard.
“I have a tendency to be a little harder on those guys than just being able to come down and make a pass or make a play,” said Hewitt. “There’s a lot of communicating that has to go on. There’s a tremendous amount of responsibility defensively out of that role. I’m still looking, to tell you the truth. I’m comfortable with what [Zam] does as a basketball player, but it’s the other things, the intangibles, if you will, that have to be displayed.
“You’ve got to pressure the ball and disrupt people. You’ve got to get your teammates in a mode where they’re all talking on the floor defensively and communicating. The good ones understand that their roles begin and end with the scoreboard. That’s it. The scoreboard tells you whether you’ve been successful or not.”
Fredrick (St. Matthews, S.C.) averaged just 1.6 points a game, but showed flashes of scoring capability in some early season games and turned the ball over just 10 times in 19 games. West averaged just 2.0 points last year, but played in 30 games, including all 16 in the ACC, because of his ability to hold opponents’ top scorers in check. He was a key figure in Tech’s two ACC Tournament wins with six rebounds against Virginia Tech, and four points and eight rebounds against North Carolina.
“You might see Mario West there, because I think he understands how vital it is to put pressure on the ball,” said Hewitt. “His ballhandling has improved. He understands that at the start of the game there’s a little confrontation to see who is going to control the middle of that court. Paco (Diaw) has shown me a lot of energy in the short time we’ve had him on the court. He’s got great size and length, good feet, long arms, and he’s an excellent passer.”
The rest of the backcourt has some scoring punch. Anthony Morrow, a 6-5 sophomore from Charlotte, N.C., is Tech’s top returning scorer at 5.7 points a game. He shot 36.5 percent from three-point range and had seven double-figure scoring games, including 11 points against Duke in the ACC Tournament final and 12 at Miami in a key February road game.
Freshmen Clinch (Cordele, Ga.) and Bell (Los Angeles, Calif.), both high-scoring players in the prep ranks, are strong physically and should boost Tech’s firepower from the perimeter. Clinch, a first-team all-state choice in class AAA, averaged better than 21 points as a senior and set the career scoring record at Crisp County High School. Bell, an all-city performer in Los Angeles, averaged 21.4 points and 14.5 rebounds as a senior after overcoming a stress fracture in his ankle.
Up front, Hewitt looks for better things from Dickey (Clio, S.C.) in the post and 6-6 sophomore Jeremis Smith of Fort Worth, Texas, at power forward. Dickey, who averaged 5.1 points and made 62.1 percent of his field goal chances (65.9 percent in ACC games) as Tech’s No. 2 center last year, promises to give Tech a stronger scoring presence around the basket with his deft touch and good post moves. Two of his four double-figure scoring games last season came against ACC opponents. Smith, who missed 17 games last year after dislocating his right kneecap, is now close to 100 percent healthy. The all-time leading scorer at Dunbar High School (more than 3,000 points), Smith will get a chance to use his offensive skills this season while also lending an aggressive, hard-nosed style on defense and on the boards. In 14 games last season, he averaged 2.9 points and 4.4 rebounds and led the Jackets on the boards three times.
Tarver, a senior from Monroe, La., is the most experienced player on Tech’s team. After starting all three of Tech’s NIT games as a freshman (6.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 8-8 FG), Tarver has suffered setbacks each of the last two years, dislocating his kneecap as a sophomore, and never quite adjusting to the strong forward position last year when Smith was injured. Given the chance to remain at center this year, Tarver is expected to log plenty of minutes as a starter or backup. Freshman Alade Aminu, a 6-9 player with good offensive skills and shot-blocking capabilities, also figures in heavily.
How Hewitt and his staff fit all the parts together will be one of the more intriguing stories in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, but the head coach isn’t conceding anything when it comes to the Yellow Jackets level of performance or its post-season goals.
“We’re not going to shy away from our goals,” he said. “Our number one goal is always to get back to the NCAA Tournament. While you’re doing that, especially while you have a team that’s finding itself, you better play hard. You better be in top condition. You’ve got to take care of your body. You have to be prepared for anything because you don’t know what to expect.
“I’ve been very lucky to be around teams that have proven it can be done – my first year at Siena and my first year here. They were teams that people looked at and scratched their heads and wondered if they would win a game. Both teams got what they deserved in the end. My first year here, they worked their tails off. All we require is that you give an unbelievable effort every time out. If you do that, then everything will take care of itself.”