Aug. 2, 2010
ATLANTA – For Georgia Tech men’s basketball coach Paul Hewitt, it is not a question of “if” his team can build off of last year’s 23-13 record, ACC Tournament championship game appearance, and NCAA Tournament bid.
Rather, for Hewitt, it is “where” the team’s production will be focused, as a fresh-faced, perimeter-oriented group of Yellow Jackets, including seven scholarship sophomores and freshmen, compete to take over the scoring duties from the likes of the departed Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal.
Early indications are that the answer to that question will be much different–but no less exciting–than it was when the team last took the court in late March against Ohio State in the second round of The Big Dance.
No longer featuring the inside presence provided by Favors, Lawal, and Zachery Peacock, the Yellow Jackets must replace three of their four leading scorers with a roster than includes no experienced players taller than 6-7, which means the team’s focus will shift from the paint to the perimeter.
Hewitt welcomes such a transition, representing a return to a familiar style of play for the 13-year head-coaching veteran, with a compilation of backcourt talent the likes of which, he believes, has not been seen on The Flats in quite a while.
“I think you have to go back a long time to find a group of talented and experienced guards like we have on this team,” said Hewitt, entering his 11th season at Georgia Tech with a record of 177-144.
“I’m really going to get back to my roots with this team. It’s similar to what I inherited at Siena and to what we had here when I started–tremendous three-point shooting, a lot of scrapping and hustling from the perimeter guys.”
Leading the squad in terms of both experience and production is 6-5 junior guard Iman Shumpert, from Oak Park, Ill., who averaged 10.0 points and 4.0 assists last season, and will likely split time at the point and wing.
Additionally, Hewitt touted Shumpert, who averaged 1.9 steals per game as a sophomore, as one of the best defensive players in the ACC, and perhaps the country.
“I’m confident both of these guys can become major players for us,” Hewitt said. “They’re both talented enough. It’s just a matter of raising their conditioning level so they can sustain their level of play throughout [and] maintain their ability to make plays effectively.”
Oliver, a 6-6 sharpshooter from Glassboro, N.J., placed himself near the top of the ACC standings for three-point percentage by making 38 percent of his 166 attempts as part of a freshman campaign during which he averaged 7.1 points per game.
Rice, Jr., 6-5 from Marietta, Ga., averaged 5.4 points per game as a freshman, making 46.7 of his shots from behind the arc while taking only one-third the attempts of his teammate Oliver.
The unknown value in the scoring equation may be incoming freshman Jason Morris, a 6-5 guard from Hephzibah, Ga., who has already garnered rave reviews in his short time at Georgia Tech.
“What I’ve heard from our players in summer games is that we have no one like him in terms of his athleticism and versatility,” Hewitt said. “He shoots both with his right and left hands very well, which we saw when we recruited him. He’s probably the best leaper we’ve had here since Jeremis Smith or Ismai’l Muhammad.”
The Yellow Jackets guard corps is further strengthened by an experienced pair primed to make an impact at point guard in Mfon Udofia and Maurice “Moe” Miller.
Udofia, a 6-2 sophomore from Stone Mountain, Ga., made a strong first impression at The Institute, starting the first 25 games of his freshman season and averaging 5.9 points per contest, before “hit[ting] the freshman wall,” according to Hewitt.
Conversely, Miller, a 6-2 senior from Memphis, Tenn., came on strong in the last month of his junior campaign, including an impressive performance in the ACC championship game against Duke. He averaged 3.9 points and 2.3 assists per game.
“When I look at our inside guys, I see guys that are willing to do some of the little things. Maybe they don’t give us as big a punch off the bat offensively,” Hewitt said. “As the year goes on, they’ll get better.”
However, Hewitt also noted that he will not hand out playing time to the 6-11, 6-8, and 6-10 respective trio of freshmen based solely upon height.
He pointed out that Anthony McHenry, the starting power forward on the Yellow Jackets’ 2004 Final Four team, came to the team as a point guard: “So you could see us go to a somewhat unorthodox lineup.”
Miller, from Loganville, Ga., redshirted last season, earning valuable practice time against the departed trio of NBA-caliber big men.
“He’s a smart player with good athleticism and good hands. His conditioning level needs to improve, and I think it has,” Hewitt said.
Holsey also redshirted after suffering a torn ACL on Aug. 1 that cost the highly-touted signee from Sparta, Ga., the 2009-10 season.
“This kid is a big-time rebounder,” Hewitt said. “I don’t think we’ve had a guy who can rebound the ball like he can and have the ability to put the ball on the floor and make passes.”
Hicks, from Panama City Beach, Fla., is a true freshman who inked with Georgia Tech in mid-July after being granted a release from a letter-of-intent he had previously signed with Tulane.
“For a young man that size, he’s an outstanding athlete,” Hewitt said. “He has the ability to defend the basket, block shots, rebound. And he can really run.”
To best suit this lineup offensively, Hewitt has reinstalled a four-out, one-in motion offense, much like the one used by the Yellow Jackets during their national semifinal run seven seasons ago, when 7-footer Luke Schenscher was the team’s only starter over 6-7.
“We’re going to play more motion, play a more open, penetrating style,” Hewitt said. “I think we have a chance to put a lot of pressure on perimeter defenders, because we have guys with the ability to take the ball to the basket, so the floor will be a little more open.”
Defensively, the head coach said that where last season’s team relied on its size to contain the floor and protect the basket, the season’s squad will be more likely to rely on its quickness to pressure opponents.
“Our field goal percentage defense may suffer, but I would imagine we’ll get more turnovers and more run-out baskets,” he said.
Away from the floor, Georgia Tech will also have two important new faces on its bench for the coming season.
In June, Hewitt added Robert McCullum, former head coach at both Western Michigan and South Florida, to his staff.
“I’ve known Robert for a long time. I met him back in the mid-1990s when he was on the staff at Florida,” Hewitt said. “I wanted somebody with a lot of experience on the staff. I think he will be a great addition.”
McCullum brings seven years of experience as a head coach and 20 more as an assistant to fill the void left by former assistant John O’Connor, who left to accept a head coaching position at Holy Family University in Philadelphia.
Additionally, waiting in the wings to crack the playing rotation in 2011-12 will be reigning Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year Brandon Reed.
Reed announced his intentions to transfer from Arkansas State in June, as well, and must sit out a year in accordance with NCAA rules.
Last year, the 6-3 local product of Whitefield Academy in Mableton, Ga., averaged 15.1 points per game, breaking the Red Wolves’ 38-year-old record for points scored in a season by a freshman.
Overall, considering what they have lost and gained over the course of the past offseason, the reasons for optimism on The Flats remain many as a new group of Yellow Jackets take to the hardwood at Alexander Memorial Coliseum this November.
“It’s going to be a fun group to coach,” Hewitt said. “This should be a team that takes very good care of the ball and plays a very fast-paced, high-scoring, exciting style of basketball.”