July 22, 2009
ATLANTA – Fifty years after their first NCAA Tournament appearance, 25 years following their first ACC Championship and 20 years after their first Final Four appearance, Georgia Tech looks ahead to a season with great promise. Eleven letterwinners and four starters return from last year’s team, bolstered by a recruiting class some services rank as high as fourth-best in the nation.
The Yellow Jackets welcome back senior wingman D’Andre Bell, who missed the entire 2008-09 campaign after surgery to repair a congenital spinal condition. Junior Gani Lawal, who entered his name in the NBA draft but ultimately decided to remain in school, comes back to a talented and deep Tech team and may contend for ACC Player of the Year honors.
Joining them are senior Zachery Peacock, junior point guard Maurice “Moe” Miller and sophomore guard Iman Shumpert, who combined to start 77 games last season, as well as veteran reserves Lance Storrs and Nick Foreman in the backcourt and Brad Sheehan in the frontcourt.
Of Tech’s returning players, seven have started at least two games in their careers, and they have combined for 198 career starts. Tech’s returning players accounted for 66 percent of the Yellow Jackets’ scoring from last season, and 72.5 percent of the minutes played.
The recruiting class features four or five players ranked in the top 100 senior in the nation last year, depending on the service, led by Parade and USA Today national player of the year Derrick Favors. They give head coach Paul Hewitt and his staff more talent and depth than any of their previous nine Tech teams.
Hewitt sat down to talk about next year’s team, and here is the last portion of his interview.
What have the struggles of the past two years taught you?
“The year before last, I didn’t think we struggled so much as we played a very, very difficult schedule. I thought the team two years ago did a great job; they played well. But we scheduled ourselves out of the post-season.
“Last year’s team played hard. It came down to free throw shooting and turnovers. I’m sure there’s something I could have done better. Primarily, I look for effort and improvement, and I thought our guys improved each and every game. I can think of maybe two games – Carolina, where we got overwhelmed and NC State here, where we didn’t play as hard as we normally do – but other than that, we were in every game. We had some things that could be attributed to inexperience on the perimeter that led to us not winning some games. And I’m sure I could have done some things differently.”
With the talent you have, the depth you have, what do you hope develops with this group?
“We want to try and re-establish our confidence in late-game situations. We’ve always been a team that, if we were close in the last four minutes, we were going to get it done. The last two years, I think we’ve lost some of that, some of it because of the level of competition, some of it because of inexperience. We want to establish that confidence that comes with being in better shape and better condition at that point in the game.”
The hallmark of this team will be what?
“It’s got to be defense. After that, I can’t tell you who is going to be the go-to guy. You hope it’s Gani, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. He’s got things to improve on, but hopefully at the end of games we can run something to get him the ball in the low post. He plays with a level of toughness and strength and can finish around the basket.
“If you play good enough defense, the rest of the stuff figures itself out.”
Schedule-wise, you have Southern California coming here after you played them on the road last year. You have the Puerto Rico tournament and road games at Charlotte, Chattanooga and Georgia. Are you satisfied that this is a challenging schedule but not overly so?
“It’s a very tough schedule. People look at the non-conference schedule and forget that we play in the toughest conference. It’s our turn to play the hardest conference schedule, like the year we had Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton. We’ve got Duke and Carolina twice, we’ve got Florida State, Clemson and Wake Forest twice. They arguably could be the five best teams in the league.
“In the Puerto Rico tournament, you’ve got Villanova, who could be a top five team. Then you have potential top-25 teams in Kansas State, Dayton, Ole Miss. It’s a tough schedule.”
Followers of this program put a lot of expectations on this freshman class. Do they put too much stock in them?
“They’re the new shiny toys on the block. They dominate the conversation among fans and media, but we know as a coaching staff that the most important things that have happened to this program are D’Andre Bell being cleared and Gani Lawal making the decision to come back to school.
“Moving forward, we need to have another strong recruiting class in 2010, particularly in the frontcourt. We need a frontcourt player or two to come in and rebound the basketball. That and a combo guard will be very important for our upcoming class.”