April 18, 2006
By Simit Shah –
The 2005-06 season for the men’s basketball team ended on some sour notes, but there were a number of bright spots and, most importantly, plenty of optimism for the future.
Coach Paul Hewitt completed his sixth season at Georgia Tech with a disappointing 11-17 record that included an 11th-place finish in the ACC and a first round exit in the conference tournament.
While Hewitt often provides keen insight during the course of a season, he always reserves his full assessment until after season is complete. So two weeks after the end of the season, he offered the following evaluation.
“I thought this was a team that had ability, but we didn’t have the requisite mental and physical toughness for the `end of game’ situations, basically the last four minutes of games,” he explained.
“We have prided ourselves on that, and by `we’ I mean the coaches and players. Even going back to the Siena days, we always made it out mantra to get to the last four minutes, because if we got there and were still in the game, our conditioning and toughness would allow us to win games,” he continued. “We just didn’t have that this year.”
Prior to the season, most of the questions surrounding the team revolved around team’s youth and experience. The top ten players on the roster consisted of four freshmen, four sophomores, one junior and one senior. The group had recorded only a handful of collegiate starts.
Despite that, the Jackets played competitively in most of their games, and there appeared to be several moments during the season when the young team was ready to turn the corner. However, momentum consistently failed to materialize.
Hewitt pointed the a January 14th game at N.C. State as the point where things started to unravel. The Jackets led by one with about eight minutes remaining the game, but they were outscored 27-17 down the stretch.
“We just did not capitalize,” Hewitt explained. “We were playing well. For the first 13 minutes of the second half, we played better than N.C. State, but they dominated us in the last seven and a half minutes.”
That loss was the start of an eight-game losing streak that derailed the season. There were other close losses that Hewitt identified that could have swung in Tech’s favor but for a handful of plays.
While the losses accumulated, there were some promising developments, most notably the improving play of Anthony Morrow, Ra’Sean Dickey and Lewis Clinch. Sophomore Jeremis Smith also returned to full-strength after an injury-shortened freshman campaign. Newcomers Alade Aminu and D’Andre Bell showed flashes of promise at various points.
During Hewitt’s tenure, he’s had a knack for pushing the right buttons to get his teams playing well at the end of the season. However, strides made this season did not translate into victories.
“There’s a great deal of frustration,” he admitted. “Obviously, I didn’t do the job I did in the past in terms of building confidence and composure.
“Anytime you go through a seasons like this, and I’ve been fortunate not to go through many of these, you have to take a hard look at how you did things. One of the decisions we made because had some extras early in the year was to back off our individual instruction program,” he added. “That might have been a mistake, because it robbed us of some of our conditioning.
“About the time that Lewis and Jeremis got healthy again, we got back to our individual instruction, and we became a cleaner team in terms of taking care of the ball and executing our offense.”
The good news is that the only departing contributor is senior Theodis Tarver but otherwise the entire team is back. Four incoming freshmen, including McDonald’s all-Americans Thad Young and Javaris Crittenton hope to inject a needed spark, but Hewitt cautions against putting too much pressure on them.
“I want them to have a normal adjustment to being college freshmen,” he said. “All four of those kids, plus Mouhammad Faye, are good players and work very hard. At the same time, if we’re going to turn this thing around, it’s going to be based on the efforts, talent and leadership of our upperclassmen. It can’t just be about freshmen coming in to save the day.”
As for Hewitt, he’s excited about the challenge to rebound from this season and has been buoyed by the support of the fans during this difficult season.
“I really count myself as lucky to working at Georgia Tech, because I think the people here want to see balance in terms of academics and athletics,” he said. “They don’t want to sacrifice any of our academic goals or reputation to field a winning basketball team. I can’t tell you how many times I’m in the airport or around town and people come up to say, `We love what you’re doing. We support you.’
“I’m not foolish enough to believe that if we have a couple more 11-17 seasons that they’ll be as supportive,” he laughed, “but I think we’ve proven we can be successful with student-athletes at Georgia Tech.”