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Tech's Fast Finish Sets Stage for Successful Future

March 22, 2002

ATLANTA – Hoping to secure a second straight post-season invitation, Georgia Tech fell one victory short, ending a five-game winning streak and its 2001-02 season with first-round Atlantic Coast Conference tournament loss to No. 3-seeded Wake Forest, at the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, N.C.

But out of the disappointment of a 15-16 season arose plenty of optimism in the future of the program because of the Yellow Jackets’ level of play in the final month of the season.

The Jackets finished their regular season with eight wins in their last 10 games to secure the sixth seed after beginning the conference schedule 0-7. Down the stretch, Tech defeated NC State, Virginia, Wake Forest and Florida State.

Continually improving over the course of the final month of the season, Tech defeated six teams that it had lost to in their first meeting of the season. The Jackets, who ranked near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories early in the year, finished toward the middle, including scoring offense and defense, and led the ACC in three-point percentage.

Tech concluded its ACC slate at 7-9 despite losing its first seven conference games. According to ACC research, that is the biggest turnaround in conference history. Tech’s seven ACC wins broke the existing record of four straight wins by a team beginning the season 0-7 or worse, held by NC State in 1996-97 and Florida State in 2001-02.

Incorporating a group of five talented freshmen, Tech played well in stretches early, but also struggled. After a 35-point victory in the season opener against Florida A&M, Tech dropped two of three games in a tournamant in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving weekend, its conference opener at North Carolina and a road game at Georgia. In between, however, the Jackets rallied from a 20-point second-half deficit for a 62-61 home-floor triumph over Wisconsin, which went on to share the Big Ten championship.

After the loss at Georgia, Tech regrouped to rout Syracuse, the 13th-ranked team in the nation at the time, 96-80, at Philips Arena. Wins followed against Davidson on the road and Wofford at home before the Jackets stumbled in a home game against Tulane, 79-69 right before Christmas.

After the holiday, Tech was handed another homecourt defeat by IUPUI, 98-92, before recovering for an 86-68 win over Cornell to start the New Year. Then came six more conference losses, including a seven-point defeat to Clemson, a five-point loss to No. 4 Maryland and a four-point loss to No. 7 Virginia.

The Jackets closed the first trip through the ACC with a 77-46 home-court rout of Florida State, which catapulted Tech through the second half of the conference schedule. It was the largest margin of victory for Tech ever against an ACC opponent. After that, Tech won six of its eight conference tilts in February and March and added a 20-point road win at Saint Louis.

Tech defeated every team in the ACC during the season except Duke and Maryland, who handed the Jackets their only two regular-season losses after the end of January. Tech finished out the regular season with five straight wins, including a last-second, 82-80, triumph at No. 22 Virginia and a 90-77 triumph over No. 24 Wake Forest in its final home game of the season.

Point guard Tony Akins, who made the all-ACC second team, played brilliantly down the stretch, averaging 22 points and 6.2 assists in Tech’s final six games. Tech’s only senior, from Lilburn, Ga., the 5-11 Akins ranked eighth in the ACC in scoring (17.0), fifth in assists (5.7), second in three-point percentage (.403) and second in three-point field goals per game (3.16).

Off-guard Marvin Lewis was Tech’s only other player averaging in double figures for the season and was the only other Jacket to start every game. The 6-4 sophomore from Germantown, Md., averaged 10.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. He was second on the Tech team in three-point percentage (39.1) and would have ranked third in the ACC in free throw accuracy (87.5), but he did not have enough attempts to qualify for league rankings.

Tech’s starting lineup for the final 13 games of the season included 6-5 sophomore forward Clarence Moore (Norco, La.), along with a pair of ACC all-Freshman team members in 6-3 guard B.J. Elder (Madison, Ga.), and 6-7 center Ed Nelson (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.).

Moore averaged 9.4 points and 5.4 rebounds, shooting 46.3 percent from three-point range and 47.5 percent overall vs. the ACC. Nelson earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors, averaging 8.5 points and a team-leading 6.9 rebounds. He topped ACC freshmen in rebounding, and averaged 10.4 points and shoots 54.2 percent vs. the ACC. Elder, who joined Nelson on the ACC all-Freshman team, averaged 9.9 points overall and 10.9 against the league.

Tech went five deep on the bench, which provided about 30 percent of the Jackets’ scoring: 6-5 forward Isma’il Muhammad (Fr., Atlanta, Ga.), who averaged 7.1 points, 6-5 sophomore wingman Halston Lane (Oak Ridge, Tenn.), 6.1 points per game, 6-8 sophomore center Robert Brooks (Saginaw, Mich.), 3.4 points and 4.3 rebounds, and 6-5 guard Anthony McHenry (Fr., Birmingham, Ala.), 1.8 ppg. Seven-foot freshman center Luke Schenscher (Hope Forest, South Australia), who was 10-for-11 from the floor in his last three games, averaged 4.8 points and 3.2 rebounds and shot 64.3 percent against the ACC.

Georgia Tech will lose just one starter and one regular reserve from the 2001-02 team – point guard Tony Akins, who finished his eligibility and is scheduled to graduate following the summer term, and sophomore wingman Halston Lane, who announced his intention to transfer the week following the ACC Tournament.

Two other players will not return: senior forward Michael Isenhour, who graduated in December and has undergone chemotherapy treatments for leukemia since November, and senior walk-on Winston Neal.

Seven players who started at least two games, and 10 lettermen altogether, return for 2002-03. Tech also signed three incoming freshmen during the early signing period in November of 2001, including Chris Bosh, a McDonald’s All-America.

The 10 lettermen who will return accounted for 70 percent of the Yellow Jackets’ points scored and 83 percent of the team’s rebounds.

Head coach Paul Hewitt sat down recently and reflected on the Jackets’ season past and a little bit on the future.

To what do you attribute the team’s turnaround after the 0-7 start in the ACC?

“Health, our health. We got to be a healthy basketball team with the return of Luke Schenscher. Isma’il Muhammad made a full recovery from his hip-pointer that really hampered him during a crucial stretch of the season for us when we lost some close, tough games. And our guys grew up, our guys got a little bit more mature. The freshman got a better understanding of the value of the half-court offense, moving the ball, taking good shots, not forcing things that a lot of times led to turnovers or bad shots that gave us poor defensive balance. So, a combination of those things, confidence, and us coming together, and it just rolled from there.

“And then, Tony Akins deserves a lot of credit for, as a senior, not turning his back on the coaching staff and the players, and not becoming a selfish player. He remained unselfish, remained a team player all the way through, realizing that he could get his numbers while helping the team improve. So, just a bunch of things like that, but Tony deserves a lot of credit for what happened.”

How much of a factor in the early struggles of your team was the assimilation of five freshmen into your system, and getting them understand what you wanted not only from an X-and-O standpoint but the effort and energy necessary to play your style?

“All high school kids have an adjustment, they don’t understand how hard you have to practice everyday and how hard you have to play in the games. They were so used to being the best player on the floor for 90-95 percent of the games that they played and the people they competed against, they could put a spurt on here or there and win the game. But, they had to learn a lot about, again, raising the intensity level and keeping it a consistently high level, and also they had to learn a lot about moving the ball and when to go and not to go in terms of shooting and trying to score. In high school, it was easy for them to bully their way to the basket or just overpower somebody or out-quick somebody, or out-athleticism somebody. Now, they had to be a little bit more cerebral with their approach and they all had good backgrounds but in terms of the adjustment process, it was the normal adjustment process that everyone had to go through.”

You had moments early when it appeared that the team was responding (Syracuse, Davidson and Wofford games). Then there were losses to Tulane and IUPUI. How frustrating was that, and how did you keep the team’s effort and energy focused?

“[That was] extremely frustrating. As I looked at that stretch, especially after we beat Syracuse and Davidson, we played two great games back to back. Our effort against Syracuse and Davidson on the road was outstanding, we did some good things and I thought I saw things starting to turn. Then the Tulane game was a tough one for us to lose, and in that game Isma’il goes down with a hip injury, and we just couldn’t really sustain anything. Once we got down in that hole, I mean, I’m naturally a positive guy but you’d be surprised, the kids did an awful lot to keep our spirits up. Everyday they’d come to practice, for the most part, they were up and ready to go.”

Do you still look at the early losses to Saint Louis, Tulane and IUPUI and wish you had those games back?

“Sure, but every coach does that. Even Mike Krzyzewski and Gary Williams, those guys are the two best in our conference, and I’m sure they have games that they say ‘I wish I could’ve had that one back.’ But, you know, you just live and learn.”

“It was the first time as a head coach that I didn’t have an above .500 record. Watching the NCAA tournament games or watching some of the NIT games, and believe me, I haven’t watched it, I’ve just seen bits and pieces, believe me, it’s been very frustrating.”

Once January rolled around, you began to see promise, even though you still lost games. What did you see, and how did you communicate that to the team?

“They could see it. It was obvious [to them] that we were playing much better basketball. That first Duke game, they took care of us pretty handily, and it would’ve been easy for us to put our heads down. But, especially after that first half, they came back and battled in the second half. And then they played an outstanding game here against Maryland, and were beat by an All-American in Juan Dixon, the player of the year in the ACC. But, I think from that point on they realized that, ‘you know what, we’ve got some good things going here, we got some positive things, let’s just keep plugging away and see what happens.’ The thing that I kept telling them and our staff was ‘hey, let’s just get one.’ I just had a feeling that if we could get one [victory], then we would go on a roll, and that’s exactly what happened.

Last year, you pointed to the second half of the game at Maryland as a “turning point” in your season. Was there such a point this season when you felt like it was coming around?

“In a sense, I guess the only game that would be somewhat similar would have been the second half at Duke. We were down a bunch at the half and the kids never hung their heads. Even when Duke comes out in the second half and stretches the lead out some more, we kept battling and kept battling and maybe there were some positive feelings in our players about not quitting and what that shows and what type of character that showed in our guys. We came back in the next game against Maryland and we played very well.”

You had a couple of key injuries (Luke, Isma’il) that contributed to losses in December and early January. How important was it to get them back?

“Well, it was very important to get Luke back. We knew Isma’il was gonna come back, but Luke just provided a defensive and offensive presence that we didn’t have all year, or at least we didn’t have when he was out with the injury. He’s an excellent passer, he’s probably the best passing big man I’ve had a chance to work with. Just his sheer size made him a problem for the other teams’ offense when they came around the basket. He changed shots, blocked shots. An interesting stat: I think before Luke came back, we were eighth in the conference, after he came back, we shot up to second in blocked shots. If he’s blocking shots, then obviously there’s two or three that he’s altering, that does a lot for your defense.”

How much of the transformation in the team do you attribute to Tony Akins? Was there a point when he changed his mindset on what he needed to do?

“He was unbelievably positive throughout, and I don’t mean positive in a phony sense, or positive in a fake sense. He was positive when he had to be. When he had to jump on guys and get on guys, he did that. He didn’t mind asserting his leadership, if there was any change, I thought he became more vocal in a positive way, really leading this team. Never once did he waver in terms of trying to do the things that we wanted him to do.”

Did he have to learn to be that leader? Did he learn that on the job?

“Oh yeah. Tony is a quiet kid to begin with, and he’s not the type of guy that’s gonna be that outspoken. And he needed to be, especially with this team and not having any other seniors with him. It would have been great if Michael [Isenhour] was healthy, obviously for him period if Michael was healthy it would have been a great thing. But unfortunately he became ill and we missed him dearly on the basketball court. We absolutely missed him on the basketball court, in practice, and in the locker room.”

About the same time Luke returned, you changed the lineup and put B.J. Elder in the starting five, and things began to click. What did B.J. bring to the play on the floor that was lacking before?

“Better ball-handling, because I felt turnovers were one of the problems in a lot of those close games that were lost, and a more versatile scorer. B.J. is a guy that can shoot the three, he can go off the dribble, he can post up. So I I put him in the lineup, now we’ve got Clarence Moore helping Tony bring the ball up in our press offense, and B.J. is up ahead as a tremendous finisher, a really tremendous finisher. I thought that made our team a lot more solid and gave us more attempts at the basket. I just felt like we had a good scoring team with B.J. and Marvin and Mo, and Tony, obviously. Ed Nelson was proving he could score, I thought he just need some more games on the offensive end.”

At the beginning of the year, you believed this team could go to a post-season tournament. Even with the 0-7 start, one win in the ACC Tournament would’ve put you in the NIT. How big an accomplishment would that have been?

“It would have been a big accomplishment but it didn’t happen [laugh]. What was a nice accomplishment was to see our guys not hang their heads and see the guys fight, battle, and really grow as a team right before your eyes. But, we didn’t reach our ultimate goal, so that is still leaves a little bit of a bitter taste.”

With Tony’s eligibility finished, you have big shoes to fill in terms of leadership. How will you replace that next year without a senior on your team?

“I think that’s something that you hand down. I think Marvin Lewis becomes a big guy, a key leader for us, and I think that’s something he’s more than willing to shoulder. I think the other juniors as well — Clarence Moore, Robert Brooks — they’ve got to accept more responsibility. I’m intrigued by the freshmen, in particular Jarrett Jack, because he’s a guy that doesn’t mind taking things on his shoulders. He’s a very, very competitive young man, and he could be one of those interesting freshman who doesn’t mind stepping up and filling the void that Tony’s going to leave.”

The prospects for next year appear very good with all but two regulars back, and three highly regarded freshmen coming in. The foundation for the future appears to be in place. How do you assess your program after two years at Tech?

“Our staff has done an unbelievable job in recruiting. If you look at where we started, in two short years of recruiting, we’ve overhauled the whole roster. We’ve signed nine players now, starting with Robert Brooks, and then last year’s freshmen class and now Theodis [Tarver], Chris [Bosh], and Jarrett. Our staff has been working overtime. They deserve a lot of credit for what we’ve done.

“In terms of how I assess what we’re going to be and how the program is looking moving forward, now I think it comes down to guys working hard in the summer. I think the summer is gonna be crucial. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get this trip to Australia organized, and it looks like we are gonna do that. It gives us 10 days of practice, and I think if the guys work hard in the weight room and keep working hard on individual instruction, there’s no telling how good a basketball team we can be. It’s gonna come down to the summer, we’ve got to build a new momentum going into the season by working hard this summer.”

You have been able to recruit well each of the last two years and have achieved some modest success early. What kind of reception are you getting on the recruiting trail these days?

“Georgia Tech has always been received well. Right from the day I got the job, I think what Bobby [Cremins] did here was make this program a national name. What’s happened in the last two years, it has made people realize ‘you know what, maybe this guy knows what he’s doing, let’s give him a hard look.’ I can go back to my first press conference where I talked about why I like this place and the reasons why I came here, and all those reasons have held up. When I go out recruiting, talking to parents or to a young man, I say ‘great school, great city, great conference.'”

How much adjustment have you had to make in the way you do things from Siena to Georgia Tech?

“Not much, not much. I’ve always tried to be very actively involved in recruiting, trying to get out as much as I need my assistants to see players and evaluate players. But I’m happy to say that I’ve got a staff that works even harder. They get active, they know where all the players are, they make all the phone calls, they know all the private contacts. So, when I go to see somebody, we’ve got a pretty good profile on who the young man is, what kind of student he is. They are really maximizing my time.”

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