Jan. 17, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Yellow Jackets set aside their personalities – yes, that’s plural – Sunday night on national television, and left themselves a fairly impressive standard against which they should rightly be measured.
In whipping North Carolina 78-58 in the Alexander Memorial Coliseum, Georgia Tech offered more than a glimpse of what the Jackets can be when/if they set their mind to it. Read that closely; there’s a trick in there.
Mind was not plural even though the pronoun that preceded it – Jackets – was. This team has been of singular mindset only on fleeting occasions, never this season more glaringly in opposite directions as in consecutive second halves last week – a disastrous entry Wednesday at Clemson when the Tigers set s bunch of school offensive records, and then to bi-polar effect Sunday when Tech limited the Tar Heels to 20 percent shooting (5 of 25) over the final 20 minutes.
Throw in two fairly complete offensive halves against North Carolina and there was evidence that the Jackets can be competitive in the ACC.
There will be no anointing of this team, at least not until they play with such passion and precision several times in a row, but there it was, on a national stage . . . potential.
Perhaps the ACC is not its usual self this season, and there’s no denying that Tech is young in the middle.
But they’re not feeble. The youngsters may not have scored much as wings Iman Shumpert (30 points) and Glen Rice Jr. (24, including 4 of 7 three-pointers) handled the bulk of the scoring, yet Tech’s bigs helped hold UNC’s hyped tall people (Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes) to a combined 8 of 28 shooting.
In simple form, Tech nullified or dulled UNC’s area of perceived edge, and amplified its own personnel advantages better than at any point this season.
There is plenty of talent with which to compete, especially against a team so clumsy with the ball as UNC. Yet it takes shared vision, and universal passion.
My former AJC colleague Jeff Schultz asked coach Paul Hewitt how his team can be so off in some games against lesser opponents, and yet so on against a quality (but not upper echelon, as UNC is not on par with it’s pre-2010 editions). The coach’s answer invoked the Jets’ upset in New England.
That’s sport, and that’s true.
But it’s not so true as to explain Tech’s lack of coherence against multiple inferior opponents.
Schultz also asked Iman Shumpert privately, after the news conference, if in so many words the Jackets had split personalities, or disparate agendas. Clearly, from the outside looking in on Tech’s body of work to date, the answer is yes. Shumpert didn’t exactly dodge the question even if he did not illuminate in an answer that included something about setting aside egos and personalities.
I was sitting next to Hawks broadcaster Bob Rathbun during the game, and after UNC coach Roy Williams absolutely tore into his team during a timeout with 6:32 remaining, Bob piped up as everybody took the court again.
“Roy’s gone to the whip; now let’s see if he can ride this nag down the stretch from the back of the pack.”
Didn’t happen. The Tar Heels trailed by nine at that point, and lost by 20. Williams was ready to come out of his skin after the game, and it appeared to take considerable effort for him to maintain composure in the media room.
We’re not at practice, but I haven’t seen Hewitt come out of his skin this season after games, and certainly not in mid-week media meetings. He’s been notably benign in comments again and again.
I’m not saying either approach is the right way to go; I don’t know.
But if anybody has a great suggestion on how to get the Jackets to dial in regularly as they were dialed in Sunday night, I’ll gladly forward the tip to the coach – with no promises that he won’t laugh.
Several times during the football season, coach Paul Johnson commented that he was struggling to “connect,” or reach his players during an often fruitless fall. Maybe Hewitt’s had the same issue.
It’s my view as well that there are times when it feels like the atmosphere around this team is made thin of oxygen by fan sentiment, and I can’t help but wonder if players sense that.
I was in a non-working capacity Sunday night (can’t remember the last time I was at a game in that situation), and didn’t speak with any players. Perhaps I’ll ask later today, although it might not be an appropriate time to bring up such a dreary prospect given the glow of Sunday’s win.
Williams said more than once after that game that his players need to play as if they care. That message might have been directed at the Jackets on several occasions this season. Gotta give a damn.
The warmth of Sunday’s glow will diminish, if the glow itself goes dim. Someone, somehow, has to figure out how to keep the light on.
Maybe Hewitt’s moving that direction.
After the post-game handshake, he directed players to mingle with students behind the west goal. If that’s happened before, I’ve missed it.
Perhaps in search of a more durable method of making players hold themselves accountable Hewitt is seeking outside help. There was some love in the building Sunday, and the Jackets clearly want more.
“Hopefully,” Shumpert said, “all of our fans and the students will keep coming out and supporting us because the atmosphere tonight really helped.”
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