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Tony and the Tots Grow Up

March 4, 2002

By Simit Shah – Leadership isn’t something that is measured in the record books, but if it were, Tony Akins name would probably appear at the top of that category in the Georgia Tech annals.

From early on, Paul Hewitt dubbed this year’s team as “Tony and the Tots.” He knew that the 2001-02 edition of the Yellow Jackets would be dependent on their senior point guard as a scorer, playmaker and, most importantly, leader.

To say Akins has delivered on those expectations would be an understatement. According to Hewitt, Akins is the reason that the Jackets have gone from conference doormat to the team nobody wants to face in just one month.

“To me this was the best example of one guy just pulling his team through, just sheer will of pulling these guys through,” Hewitt said last week following a 90-77 win over Wake Forest. “I can’t even begin to describe all the little things he’s done off the court, setting an example in individual instruction, coming in and watching tape every single day.”

Sparking his team to an 8-2 run to cap the regular season, Akins is finishing his final season with a flurry. He averaged more than 19 points and six assists during that stretch. He also hit 33 of his conference-high 94 three-pointers in that span.

“We’re just playing with so much confidence right now,” he said. “Everyone is on the same page and knows their role. We’ve finally turned that corner.”

Things weren’t always so easy for Akins. A highly touted prep star, Akins came to Tech from suburban Atlanta’s Berkmar High School as the heir apparent to Tech’s storied point guard tradition. However, his scorer’s mentality did not mesh well on the collegiate level.

“I just thought about scoring,” he said. “Scoring was everything. That was a sign of immaturity.”

While Akins was finding ways to get points, victories were few and far between. His development had stagnated after two years, but then Hewitt took over the program and challenged Akins to become a true floor leader.

“My first couple of years, I had a lot of regrets,” said Akins. “Now I’m happy the way things turned out.”

Last season, Akins helped lead the team to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years while enjoying his best year statistically. However, the strong supporting cast around him mostly consisted of seniors.

A mammoth challenge lay before Akins entering this season. He was charged with taking a group of talented, yet green youngsters and try to duplicate the previous season’s success.

The job got a lot tougher when Akins’ teammate and close friend Michael Isenhour was diagnosed with acute lymphomic leukemia just weeks before the start of the season.

“I think that’s part of the reason our team developed so slowly,” said Akins. “It was just me trying to lead everyone else. It was hard trying to talk all the time. Mike’s more of a vocal leader, and the team and I missed him being around.”

Without Isenhour’s experience and leadership, the Jackets struggled mightily early in the season. Losses to Penn, Tulane and IUPUI early on forecasted a bleak outlook for conference play.

It took nearly three months, but Akins and his teammates finally found a winning formula. A thrashing of Florida State on January 30 gave the Jackets their first conference win and ignited the team on their late-season surge.

“Last year, we had all the tools, and all I had to do was hit the start button,” explained Akins. “This year we have the tools, but I have to put them in place.

“Rather than hitting the start button, I have to be the engine. I have to be like a supervisor, where last year I could turn it on and leave.”

In his final regular-season home game, Akins was at his best, scoring 19 points and dishing out eight assists against Wake Forest. The stellar performance came after an emotional senior night ceremony, which included Isenhour.

“I’m just glad to see Mike walking around and smiling,” said Akins. “That makes me happy.”

The night also gave Akins, who is on track to graduate this summer with a management degree, a chance to reflect on his career.

“It’s been a long journey, but sometimes it seems like it’s lasted one year,” he said. “I’m sad to see it end, but things don’t last forever.”

Entering his final ACC Tournament, Akins is at ease with his legacy at Tech. He is content knowing that he’ll have played a large role in the development of a roster that seems destined for great things.

“I’ve told them, ‘If you guys blossom and win, that’s going to make me happy. That’s going to show that I did my job as a leader.’

“I’m hoping to turn on the TV and see them spanking Duke. I’ll be very proud.”

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