Pieces Coming Together

Jan. 18, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

It’s a risky proposition trying to read body language, but in combining recent history and the collective countenances of Georgia Tech’s basketball players, it appears that step one of the Yellow Jackets’ transition from pretender to contender is complete and there is hope for parts two and three.

First, I’m a fan of the Alpha player theory. A team has to have a ground zero man, or two, and in Tech’s case Iman Shumpert and Glen Rice Jr. have clearly absorbed these roles.

Part two includes the emergence of wildcard players, which is to say the more or less consistent process of at least one non-Alpha player stepping up to ride shotgun on the deck. It could be a different player or players each game. We’ll get back to this, but know now that my wildcards are – in no order – Tech’s young big men, Brian Oliver’s shooting stroke and freshman forward Jason Morris in general.

Part three calls for passion, or intensity, or focus, or chutzpah, or whatever you want to call it. This list of words ought to give you an idea what I mean. Sunday night, UNC coach Roy Williams suggested that his players didn’t have it, and he was right. At times, Tech has lacked this intangible, too. Not Sunday.

Perhaps an impromptu players conclave sparked by the debacle in the second half last Wednesday at Clemson has produced something of lasting effect to address part three.

Oliver is not playing to his potential, and to my eye it’s apparent in his body language. If his shooting stroke, the most notable part of his skill set, has not abandoned him completely, there is no doubt he’s chasing it as if it were a young fruit fly.

He wasn’t exactly skittish in front of TV cameras Tuesday, but neither was he the confident young man I so often saw last year, when he made 38 percent of his 3-point shots.

Yet he had something important to say.

“I’ve got to do other things,” Oliver said. He is, too, despite a 3-point percentage that has dropped to 29.6 percent and a recent skid that has seen him make 10 of his last 49 trey attempts and 27 of his last 97 shots overall in a 10-game span that has seen him move from the starting lineup to the bench.

Oliver’s rebounding numbers are way up, from 1.9 per game to 4.7, and he’s three assists shy of last season’s entire total (28 now). He’s matched his steals total (10) from last season, and he’s doing more off the ball than he did as a freshman.

Another Oliver comment might be more important.

Between the miserable showing at Clemson, and Sunday night’s 20-point win over North Carolina, something happened. This may be a clue: “Just the way that game ended, everybody got together and we just said, `We can’t keep doing this,’ Oliver said. ” `We can’t let this ever happen again.’ “

If Oliver’s right, and the Jackets (8-8, 1-2 ACC) have suddenly banded as if brothers, then the final 13 games of the ACC season – beginning in Alexander Memorial Coliseum tonight against Wake Forest (7-11, 0-3) – will be more enjoyable.

Coach Paul Hewitt has been saying for some time that his team is getting better, that they’ve been practicing well. There was temptation on more than one occasion to wonder about that because if the Jackets had been lights out in practice, it wasn’t always transferring into games.

It did Sunday.

“People only see what goes on [in games]. We played two great first halves in our first two conference games only to play two poor second halves,” Hewitt said.

Asked how the Jackets can maintain what they did against the Tar Heels, the coach said, “Keep practicing hard. That builds confidence. When you get out on the [practice] court, you practice that game-level intensity, which sometimes is tough to get young guys to understand. Then, when you get in games it’s just an extension of practice.”

If for the Jackets it is as simple as flipping a switch that throws the same light on games as Hewitt says is shining in practice, that is – relatively speaking – an easier switch to flip than, say, a shortage of talent.

In the UNC game, the light of passion was bright.

So too, did bulbs burn brightly in freshmen big men Daniel Miller, Kammeon Holsey and Nate Hicks both on defense and offense – even though they weren’t scoring a lot.

That triumvirate is a slice of part three: when Tech succeeds, the box score might more often read as it did following the UNC game, when Shumpert and Rice combined for 54 points. But that success will almost always start from the inside and move out.

Far too frequently this season the young bigs have played the game too much like you, or most of you, watch it – by following the ball.

They’re blue-collar workers, and their efficiency – a wildcard entry to be sure – to a great degree will dictate the success of the team’s headliners.

“The thing you see is that they’re talking a lot more, they understand what they have to do, they’re screening a lot better,” Hewitt said. “You know they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing offensively if they’re standing and watching the ball move instead of getting Iman open, getting Glen open. Defensively, if you don’t see them talking, and they look confused, then they are.”

You might say Oliver’s shooting has become a wildcard, and in my view freshman Jason Morris fits in this category as well.

In theory, the long ball is not his game, but he’s making 44 percent of his 3-pointers and has made nine of 16 over a six-game stretch, averaging eight points in that span as opposed to five before.

Hewitt said the light bulb has not yet gone off for Morris, who sometimes slips into day-dream land, but when it does, “he can be as good as any rookie in this league,” Hewitt said. “Very smart kid, very talented athlete, but sometimes he just forgets. To be as smart as he is . . . sometimes he just has lapses. When the light does go off, he’s got a very, very bright future.”

Morris seemed a bit stunned, but by no means distressed, to learn that his coach had alluded to his mental lapses. Proud of his gray matter having come from the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, he likely loathes anything that suggests that his ship is not always air tight. He took it in stride, though, and did not disagree that he has fleeting moments of basketball consciousness.

Regarding the long balls, he said he’ll take that shot, “If it’s there. It’s not really my job so to speak. I’m supposed to be the slasher, finisher, above the rim, making athletic plays, which is on me. Two games in a row I haven’t gotten to the free throw line.”

As with Oliver, some of Morris’ secondary comments may be more meaningful. He sounded like part of a team that could be catching a vibe.

“I think we’re definitely getting more comfortable [on offense]. We’re just getting a better feel for each other,” he said. “It’s more of a team game. In the last game, we were going back to Iman and Glen when they were hot as opposed to before sometimes it looked like we would go away from that person.”

Speaking of fleeting, Hewitt concedes that no questions have been answered conclusively. All queries about the Jackets remain open-ended.

“The key is, are we going to come back with that same level of intensity?” he said. “When you lose a couple in a row, it does create some urgency around your program and around practices. Was that urgency because we were losing, or because the guys have figured it out?”

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