June 16, 2006
ATLANTA – As Georgia Tech’s incoming freshman basketball players arrive on the Flats for summer school next week, excitement has begun to build around the program for next season.
While a new class of freshmen begin their academic work, many former Tech players are also in summer school working toward their degrees, including 2004-05 seniors B.J. Elder, Anthony McHenry and Luke Schenscher and their teammate Jarrett Jack, who spent last season as a rookie with the Portland Trail Blazers. Former stars such as Dennis Scott and Tony Akins also are enrolled for summer session.
Meanwhile, head coach Paul Hewitt is off to San Antonio, Texas, to begin his work as an assistant coach for USA Basketball’s Under-18 team which will represent the United States at the FIBA Americas Under-18 Championship at the end of the month. Training camp for the team begins Sunday, and the competition goes from June 28 through July 2.
The Yellow Jackets emerged from their disappointing 2005-06 season with very little roster turnover and the anticipation of the arrival of a recruiting class ranked in as high as sixth in the nation. It has led to some observers to consider the Yellow Jackets for their top 25 rankings for next year, while others omit Tech from their field-of-65 predictions for the NCAA Tournament. Opinions should continue to vary widely as the pre-season magazine publishers offer their projections this fall.
Hewitt will have only one senior on next year’s team, former walk-on defensive specialist Mario West, 6-6 from Douglasville, Ga., but welcomes back six of the team’s top seven scorers from last year, including three-point marksman Anthony Morrow, postman Ra’Sean Dickey, and leading rebounder Jeremis Smith, all rising juniors. That trio accounts for 69 percent of the points scored by returning players, 70 percent of the rebounds, 64.4 percent of the shots taken and 56.7 percent of the minutes played.
Morrow, 6-5 from Charlotte, N.C. led the ACC in three-point shooting (42.9 percent) while leading the Yellow Jackets in scoring (16.0 points per game). Dickey, 6-9 from Clio, S.C., became an offensive force inside for Tech in the second half of the season, finishing as the team’s second leading scorer (13.2 ppg) and rebounder (6.8) while hitting 59.7 percent of his field goal tries. Smith, 6-6 from Fort Worth, Texas, tailed off at the end of the year but still averaged 11.0 points and a team-best 8.2 rebounds while handling much of the physical defensive and rebounding work inside.
Lewis Clinch, a rising 6-3 sophomore guard from Cordele, Ga., showed great promise at the end of the year, averaging in double digits for his last eight games. He finished the year averaging 8.9 points a game, third-best in the ACC among freshmen, and made 40.8 percent of his three-point shots.
Other returning players include 6-5 sophomore swingman D’Andre Bell, who started 11 games last year, 6-6 sophomore guard Paco Diaw, who started two, and 6-9 sophomore post player Alade Aminu, who saw some significant playing time in the final two games.
They will be joined by five freshmen, including two of the nation’s top 10 high school seniors in 6-5 point guard Javaris Crittenton of Atlanta and 6-8 forward Thaddeus Young of Memphis, Tenn., both of whom are expected to play major minutes and contend for starting assignments. Both players made the McDonald’s All-American team among numerous national, regional and state honors. Also coming in are a pair of frontcourt players in 6-7 Zach Peacock of Miami, Fla., and 6-10 Brad Sheehan of Latham, N.Y., both of whom earned all-state honors, as well as 6-8 forward Mouhammad Faye of Dakar, Senegal, who red-shirted last season.
Safe to say that it is far too early and too much remains to be determined in the pre-season to project Tech’s fortunes for 2006-07. But Hewitt is clearly placing the burden of change from last year’s 11-17 campaign on the shoulders of his upper classmen, and looks forward to plenty of competition for playing time before and during the season.
Following are thoughts and observations about the team from Hewitt, who looks ahead to his seventh season at Georgia Tech.
You’ve expressed a lot of dissatisfaction over the way last season went, and have always been quick to say things like “this will not happen again.” Can you go into, in as much or as little detail as you want, what the underlying problems were last season and what measures you have taken to correct those things?
“I didn’t think we competed the way I had grown accustomed to seeing our guys compete. Our immaturity probably got the best of us at times, and there were some things that I thought I could’ve done to push that maturity process along, but it’s over with now and we just have to look to the future.”
Can you evaluate your returning players in their spring individual instruction and strength and conditioning? What advancements do you want them to make between now and the beginning of practice on October?
“There were some things that I thought we needed to re-establish in terms of our ability to push ourselves, especially when fatigue became a factor. I thought the individual workouts during the spring went well so we’ll have to see how that works out for us next season.”
Your lack of a true point guard had a lot to do with last year’s performance. You have recruited a player many believe was the best high school point guard in the nation. What does he bring to your team in terms of skills, mental makeup, etc.?
“I don’t think the point guard play was as big a problem as our inability to compete at the end of games. Javaris is not going to come in here and change things by himself. If we’re going to improve, it’s going to be on the strength of Ra’Sean Dickey, Jeremis Smith, Anthony Morrow, and Lewis Clinch. They’re the guys that have to improve because they have experience, and they know why we lost those games last year. They’ve got to establish from day one in practice how we are going to go about it.
“Javaris is a big, strong, aggressive guard who’s going to dictate tempo. He’s much improved in shooting the basketball, and he’s just very talented. He did well during his high school career by winning a couple of state titles and being a McDonald’s All-American. His greatest strength is his competitiveness.”
“They are two very talented young men on the offensive end, and I’ll be surprised if they don’t contribute significantly on that end. The one thing I do know is that until you get a kid in practice and start to work with him and know what he can and can’t do, it’s hard to project freshmen. That’s why I have my rule of not allowing them to talk (to the media) until after their first game. They’re good, and a lot of people around the country wanted them very badly, and we were very fortunate to get them, but I can’t project how they’ll play this year.”
Is it a foregone conclusion that they’ll get in the starting lineup next year?
“I can’t say that it’s a foregone conclusion. Brad Sheehan, Zack Peacock, and Mouhammad Faye – those three guys can play. Mouhammad and Zack in particular will have something to say as to who starts and how much playing time people get next year. Javaris is in the position to start purely because of the position he plays, but the talent level of these guys will enable them to come in and compete.”
What are your plans for a backup?
“Javaris can’t play 40 minutes, so Mario, D’Andre, and Lewis will probably fill in a little bit so we’ll work it out. I don’t think it will be an issue.”
Would it be fair to say that the stage is set for there to be a lot of competition next year?
“No question. As the year goes on, I think this is the type of team where there won’t be a lot of separation.”
What are your expectations for the other two freshmen – Peacock and Sheehan? What do they bring?
“They’re both hard-nosed and tough players. Zack is a big-time rebounder, good outside shooter, knows how to play defense. Brad runs the floor extremely well for a kid that’s 6-10 and can shoot the basketball. They both will have excellent careers here at Tech. When will they take off? Who knows.”
What about Mouhammad Faye? People have heard his name, but there’s a lot of mystery surrounding him.
“He’s 6-8 and a half and very skilled, has long arms and a 7-3 wing span which really plays well with what we try to do defensively in terms of putting pressure on people and getting into the passing lanes. On the offensive side, he’s got to get in better shape because I don’t think he understands how competitive the games are. There’s no question he’s talented, but he tends to get tired too quickly.”
With the exception of point guard, there seems to be a great deal of depth on this roster? What kind of flexibility do the new players offer in terms of where they can play on the floor, and how does that affect the returning players?
“We have a group of guys that versatile both offensively and defensively. You have guys in Mouhammad and Thaddeus who are long and can pass the ball. Javaris has excellent size at point guard at 6-4, and Mario West is also back. If you look at our roster on paper, we’re talented, and I thought we were the same way last year. For 35 minutes of every game last season, we competed with everyone, but the last five minutes hurt us because of immaturity or poor conditioning. We have to make sure that we go out and fight next season and not let those things get in the way.”
“They know they have to work harder on conditioning and becoming better defenders. In order to become successful and to be able to compete in the ACC next year, we have to become better defenders. If you look at all the teams on paper, there are at least nine teams that I think are tournament-worthy and in order to be successful, you’d better be able to defend. Clemson will be very good, and Virginia will have the best backcourt in the conference and possibly the nation. Nine-and-seven will be an outstanding record next year, and 8-8 will be a great record to come out of the league play with. You can only hope that people and also our players can understand the quality of our conference.”
Lewis Clinch came on as a consistent offensive performer late in the year. How much did his injury set him back, and can he take a similar leap forward during this off-season?
“It set him back, but what’s interesting is that him sitting out during those games helped him understand the game better by watching it from the sideline. You have a much better appreciation of what the coaches are trying to get you to do. He has worked extremely hard since the season ended to improve his game, and he’s definitely working with more of a purpose. He takes every position to heart, and he earned his playing time because of how much he cares when he’s out on the court.”
Do you see D’Andre Bell making a greater contribution on the offensive end next year, or is his strength likely to remain more on the defensive end?
“He did a nice job in shooting the open jumpers, and I thought he developed well.”
What roles do you envision for Aminu and Diaw?
“Both of them are long, athletic, and can be very disruptive defensively. People might not be expecting a lot out of them, but they have the ability. This will be an interesting year for me because I can see there being fluctuations in the starting lineup and playing time based on who did what in practice or in the game before. Alade provided a big spark defensively for us when he got in the game last year, and I think he’s very talented. He’s young as a basketball player because he didn’t seriously get into basketball until his high school years.”
Do you see this group being better offensively?
“This team is talented offensively, but what we have to do is get in the mentality of getting defensive stops and rebounds, and playing transition basketball by forcing turnovers and getting loose balls. I think our halfcourt situation will enable us to score, but if you rely on that type of offense, it will make it hard.”
What is your take on next year’s schedule? You already have the Maui Invitational, a road trip to Vanderbilt, plus Georgia and Penn State at home. You have been working on a game with Connecticut at the Georgia Dome.
“The Connecticut game is set for February 11 in the Georgia Dome at 1 p.m. on CBS. It’s a pretty ambitious schedule with that game being in the middle of the ACC schedule, and it will be played for charity for Scottish Rite and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. We also want to play that game to see what kind of interest there is after the Super Bowl, and the fact that it will be at the Dome, the site of next year’s Final Four, should hopefully create some interest.”
Some early previews have Georgia Tech ranked in the top 20, others not in the NCAA Tournament field at all. What would be a reasonable assessment of this team at this time?
“I don’t know because there are so many variables that will come into play. In my mind, we’re in a league that should get nine teams in the (NCAA) Tournament, but we only got four in last year. As a coach, that concerns you. Good teams are getting left out because there are more teams in Division I. Maryland went 8-8 in the league last year and played the 11th toughest schedule in the nation and still didn’t get in.”