Nov. 10, 2006
By Simit Shah – Mario West laughed as soon as he heard the question.
“Do I feel old?” the team’s lone senior repeated. “Sure, I feel a little old. I’m the last guy that was part of Final Four team. Everyone else is gone, so I feel like the older brother.”
West is preparing to begin his fifth year on Georgia Tech’s basketball team, which begins the season with home games against Elon, Jackson State and Georgia State. The senior is the roster’s final link to the program’s 2004 national championship game appearance. While it’s a nice piece of trivia, Coach Paul Hewitt sees it as one of the potential keys to this season.
“It’s very important,” the seventh-year coach said. “He can tell the guys how hard you have to work and how well they have to prepare for the opportunity this season presents.”
Without a doubt, West has made the most of every opportunity presented to him over the last four years. The 6-5 guard joined the program as a walk-on in 2002 after earning all-state honors at Douglas County High School in suburban Atlanta. A spot defender on the Final Four squad in 2003-04, West has assumed a larger role the past two seasons. As a sophomore, he appeared in 30 games and saw his minutes increase over the course of the season, He solidified his reputation as a lockdown defender with impressive efforts against some of the ACC’s top scorers, including Wake Forest’s Chris Paul. Last season, West started 17 games and played over 22 minutes per game, recording career highs in every offensive and defensive category. He also logged valuable minutes at point guard on a team in desperate need of ball-handling.
The season finds West in the role of valuable backcourt reserve, and he’s also been tutoring sophomore D’Andre as he learns the ropes as a backup point guard.
“Mario is the ultimate team player,” Hewitt declared. “He’s going to do anything to help his team win. He’s got a level of determination that I haven’t seen in many kids. Whatever task is in front of him, he’s going to do his very best to accomplish it.”
However, West was unsure if he’d return for his final year of eligibility. He earned his degree in management last May, plus there was no guarantee that he’d see the same amount of action as last year with a deeper roster.
“There were a lot of factors,” he explained. “It was something I thought about, and Coach Hewitt and I talked about it. I felt like I could help this team, and I’m close with all these guys. I think I can wait one more year before I go out in the real world.”
When they talked at the end of spring semester, Hewitt cautioned him against returning for the wrong reasons: “I told him, `If you’re coming back solely for basketball reasons, I don’t think you should come back. I can’t guarantee you playing time. You’re going to have to go out and earn it.’
“The fact that he had already graduated, the fact that he’s a great student, he’s going to be a great hire for somebody,” he continued. “My point to him if this was solely a basketball decision, he needed to get on with his life, but if there’s something that he could gain academically, come on back.”
So West is back for one more season. Off the court, he’s working on a second undergraduate degree in economics and also interning with Capstone Financial Services/Mass Mutual.
On the court, West will once again provide unmatched intensity as part of the team’s backcourt rotation. He’ll also be a leader on this team, which has 10 underclassmen on the roster.
“It’s his fifth year, and the other guys kid with him about being part of the coaching staff,” Hewitt said. “He’s been here what seems like forever, and he does carry a lot of experience.
“He knows the system, but more importantly, he can teach them how hard they have to work. He’s watched Chris Bosh, Jarrett Jack, Luke Schenscher, Will Bynum and all those guys. He knows exactly the price they paid to be successful as collegians and now as professionals.”
The coaching staff has also found another way to leverage that experience, as well as his dedication in the classroom.
“Whether he knows it or not, we try room him with people that we think he can rub off on positively,” Hewitt explained. “When we sit down and do rooming plan every year, that’s one of the considerations we keep in mind. He’s done a nice job. Last year, I think he was great helping Paco (Diaw) and Mouhammad (Faye) adjusted to Georgia Tech.”
West sees plenty of potential for this year’s team. Four newcomers, including a pair of McDonald’s all-Americans, will complement a core of nine returning players.
“There are a lot of teams (around the ACC) with players returning that will be good,” West said. “I like the guys on our team, the guys coming in. I really like our chances. Last year, we thought we had a good chance, but that means nothing if you do not come out and perform.”
In his final season, West sees another golden opportunity, and he’s ready to make the most of it again.
“I tell people all the time that he’s the living example of someone given an opportunity that made the most of it,” said Hewitt. “We’re always telling our young people that you never know when opportunity will knock, so be ready.
“If you’ve been on the bench three games in a row, it doesn’t matter. Just be ready when the coach calls on you. Mario’s done that with life. We gave him an opportunity to walk on, and within half a year, he convinced me that he was worthy of a scholarship. It wasn’t through talking but with effort.”