Oct. 17, 2001
By Jack Williams – Georgia Tech basketball Coach Paul Hewitt thinks his Yellow Jackets might surprise the media forecasters who probably are standing in line to vote Tech near the bottom in the Atlantic Coast Conference pre-season polls.
Senior guard Tony Akins, the floor leader of the Jacket charge, seconds his coach’s motion.
“They picked us eighth or whatever last season,” Hewitt said this week. “They’ve probably got us eighth or ninth again this year. That suits us just fine. Our goals don’t change. Our goal is to be back in the NCAA Tournament this season.”
Akins was even more emphatic when he talked on Tech Media Day. “Even though we lost five seniors from last season, I think we have more talent this year,” Akins said. “My job as a senior is to help teach our five freshmen how to handle different situations as they arise. If our freshmen play great, we can be great.”
Hewitt does admit the five newcomers have a lot of growing up to do. “They are very athletic, very gifted,” the coach said. “But right now I would not advise you to sit at courtside. We have a lot of balls flying out-of-bounds.”
Hewitt has no such problem with Akins. “Six new players to our team (including forward Clarence Moore who missed last season with an injury), all came from situations where they were the best player on their teams,” the coach said. “Now they have to adapt to new roles. Tony Akins is the best player out there. He’s in the best shape, and he’s the best player. Tony averaged 18.1 points over the last half of last season. He’s capable of doing that again. But I’m more interested in how he leads us off the court. He plays a very important role.”
The five freshmen who bring so much talent to the Tech team are forwards Isma’il Muhammad of Atlanta, Ga., and Ed Nelson of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., guards B.J. Elder of Madison, Ga., and Anthony McHenry of Birmingham, Ala., and 7-0 center Luke Schenscher of Hope Forest, Australia.
Their job is to help Hewitt keep the ball rolling after a highly-successful first season at the Jackets’ helm. He went out and won with a bang from the start. His team beat the likes of UCLA, Kentucky, Maryland, Wake Forest and Virginia (three times) and returned to the NCAA Tournament.
But Hewitt took all the success in stride, just as he does most everything else in life.
“What Bobby Cremins did here really took hard work,” Hewitt said. “When he took over the program, Tech had won four games the year before. The Tech record in the ACC was about zero. What he accomplished at Tech took a lot of vision. All I am doing is reaffirming what he already has proved–that Georgia Tech can be a strong factor in the ACC and in the nation.”
The Jackets will have to do it this year without five key seniors from last season, including Shaun Fein, who averaged 13.4 points per game, and 6-11 Alvin Jones, an intimidator inside.
Hewitt says Tech may go to a smaller lineup more often. “We had some of our best success last season when we played small,” Hewitt says. “We must use our athleticism, quickness and size (even though it is in the middle range) to our advantage.”
Hewitt thinks the team’s biggest man, the slender freshman Schenscher, can eventually be a force.
“Luke will play, not just because of his height, but because he deserves to be out there,” the coach said. “He is a good offensive player and his offense, at this stage, is far ahead of his defense. He came here weighing 214 and is up to 229 now. When he gets to 250 and maintains that weight, he can be one of the best centers around. That, however, will not be this year.”
Another Tech big man, senior forward Michael Isenhour, currently is not available. He recently underwent minor leg surgery and likely will miss most of the pre-season work.
“That leaves us with 10 healthy bodies,” Hewitt says. “Despite that, we still plan to play pressure defense. If someone else should go down, that might change.”
In addition to Akins, Tech has some other talented returning players. Marvin Lewis, like Akins, was a full-time starter last season. Others back are swing-man Halston Lane, who was a long-range scoring force in several big victories last season, and forward Robert Brooks, whom Hewitt says has played extremely well in early practices this season.
Lewis agrees with Akins that Tech can be an improved team. “We are not worried about what people say or predict,” he said. “We are trying to come together as a team and I think we will. If we follow Coach Hewitt’s plan, we will win. Because of him, we will be prepared for anything.”
Sizing up the newcomers, Hewitt says, “The freshmen all can play and they are eager to learn. They also are very mature off the court. I have been extremely pleased with how they carry themselves.”
The coach is elated that Tech was able to land five new solid players after getting such a late start in the recruiting process. “It really took a tremendous effort, especially by our assistant coaches,” he said. “Willie Reese, with his ties in the State of Georgia, brings a lot of perspective to our staff. He did a terrific job in the recruiting process.”
Hewitt continues to say his biggest plus at Georgia Tech is the Atlantic Coast Conference in which the Jackets compete. What better proof of the strength of the league than the results of 2000-2001? ACC front-runner Duke won the NCAA Championship and another ACC member Maryland made the Final Four.
“Some nights, I am really happy to be in the Atlantic Coast Conference,” Hewitt said, smiling. “Then other nights, I am not so happy when I see the talent on the other teams and the quality coaches on the other benches.”
Meanwhile, Coach Hewitt and his Jackets continue to build, look to the future–and spread a little power of positive thinking along the way.