July 26, 2007
ATLANTA – Every year is a new year, and a new team. It has always been head coach Paul Hewitt’s philosophy, and he has always relished the opportunity to begin preseason practice in October with a clean canvas and a fresh set of colors.
This year’s edition of Georgia Tech’s basketball team is no different. Yes, the Yellow Jackets lost their two top scorers and their best one-on-one defender, but seven letterwinners who averaged double-digit minutes return, three highly-regarded recruits are on campus, and two other players who sat out last season join the fray.
“We have a very good team coming back,” said Hewitt. “I think we should be as competitive as always.”
Those returning players, led by scoring guards Lewis Clinch and Anthony Morrow, were a big part of the Yellow Jackets hitting 49 percent of their shots from the floor, a high-water mark for the Hewitt era, and outscoring opponents by 9.2 points on average for the season. Tech also returns its leading rebounder in Jeremis Smith, who helped the Jackets set a school record and finish second in the Atlantic Coast Conference in rebound margin at plus-5.8 boards per game.
That core group combined for 54 starts last season, and is backed up by a quartet of up-and-coming players in Alade Aminu, D’Andre Bell, Mouhammad Faye and Zach Peacock, all of whom were significant contributors and have 30 career starts between them.
Add to that group point guard Matt Causey and forward Brad Sheehan, who sat out last season as a transfer and a red-shirt, respectively, as players who are familiar with Hewitt’s system and what the head coach expects in terms of effort.
Hewitt welcomes a trio of talented recruits in Gani Lawal, a 6-8 forward from Norcross, Ga., Maurice “Moe” Miller, a 6-2 point guard from Memphis, Tenn., and Lance Storrs, a 6-4 shooter from Decatur, Ga., all of whom are expected to contend for playing time.
They give Hewitt plenty of depth both on the perimeter and in the post areas, and plenty of colors on the palette from which to create some excitement and wins on the floor.
Tech still has plenty of people who can score. Clinch, a 6-3 junior who played only 14 games last year before being declared ineligible, was averaging better than 17 points, hitting 53 percent of his shots and 47.6 percent of his three-point attempts through his first 10 games. Morrow, a 6-5 senior who took over most of Clinch’s minutes as the season went on, averaged 12.3 points from Dec. 30 on, and 10.6 points against the ACC while hitting 41.7 percent of his threes.
“You look throughout the year, there we different times where different players stepped up,” said Hewitt. “That’s something on which we pride ourselves, being able to help kids to improve and get more confident, and then you become a team that can get help from everyone. This team coming up should be more veteran, should be more dependent on older players, and we should be more consistent.”
Tech’s offense and defense begin with point-guard play, and the Yellow Jackets have two on the roster.
Causey, a 6-0 whirling dervish who played all 28 games as a freshman at Georgetown before transferring to North Georgia, spent two seasons leading that team in scoring and assists. He sat out last season, but won plenty of plaudits from his teammates for his hustle and IQ in practice. Miller, a 6-2 pass-first, shoot-second player who was named Mr. Basketball in his classification in Tennessee, is described as an intelligent player who knows how to run a team.
“Causey has the benefit of practicing with us for a year, and he’s a real savvy kid, can really shoot the basketball, played in the Big East. The fact that he’s been around us is going to help him,” said Hewitt. “Miller is a very smart player, was well taught by his high school coach, Jimmy Adams. I haven’t had him in a practice yet, so I don’t what he needs to work on, but watching him and evaluating him, one thing I do know is that he has a really good feel for how to run a basketball team.”
On the wings are three experienced players in Clinch, Morrow and Bell, a 6-5 high-energy player who may benefit the most in terms of increased minutes. Appreciating his effort and determination on defense and his solid left-handed mid-range jump shot, Hewitt has often expressed a desire to further incorporate Bell into the scheme.
“I think he has a chance to be a tremendous defender, and he shoots the ball well from 16-18 feet,” he said.
Having Clinch playing at his early-sophomore level over an entire season would be a welcome sight for the Yellow Jackets. Scoring beyond the three-point arc and by penetrating the lane, the Cordele, Ga., native put up 20-point games against the likes of UCLA, Penn State and Miami. And Morrow, who was visibly stronger in his upper body last year, continues to develop his strength and conditioning.
“[Clinch] is a very gifted and talented scorer,” said Hewitt. “If you had to handicap it, then sure, I think you’d say Lewis Clinch probably would be our top scorer. I tell you, one guy who looks good physically is Anthony Morrow.”
Morrow started 10 of Tech’s last 11 games last year, scored in double digits in 15 of his last 20, hit 20 of his last 37 three-point tries, and finished the year 10th in the ACC in three-pointers per game. He scored 20 in Tech’s double-overtime loss to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament, pouring in 13 of those in OT, then hit for 13 against UNLV in the NCAA Tournament.
This group is bolstered by another outside shooting threat in Storrs, who led Columbia High School to a 62-3 record and a AAAA state title his last two years and averaged 15.6 points as a senior. Mouhammad Faye, a 6-10 forward with long arms and a good shooting touch, will figure in at the small forward position as well as in the post.
POST PLAYERS Jeremis Smith, the 6-8 senior captain, is back and will play a lot, but fellow senior Ra’Sean Dickey is unavailable for duty due to academics. Hewitt still has plenty of options in the frontcourt, however, thanks to the rapid development of reserves 6-10 Alade Aminu and 6-8 Zach Peacock.
Smith, a senior from Fort Worth, Texas, who was named a co-captain toward the end of last season, was Tech’s top rebounder (5.9 per game) for the second straight year, and its fifth-leading scorer (8.8 points per game). Strong physically, he came up big in several key wins, including 10 points in the Jackets’ only ACC road win at Florida State and 13 in the regular-season finale win over Boston College, not to mention 21 against Memphis in Maui.
Peacock, a strong sophomore from Miami, beat out Dickey in the preseason last year and started Tech’s first nine games by playing solid defense and demonstrating good fundamental rebounding skills. His scoring was limited, but he posted four double-digit games and showed ability to hit the three when left open.
Aminu, an athletic junior from Stone Mountain, gave the Yellow Jackets a big shot of energy over the last 11 games of the year, beginning with Tech’s Feb. 3 win over Clemson. Giving Tech a scoring presence in the post and someone to get up the floor in transition, he averaged 6.5 points and 3.1 rebounds over that stretch, and shot 58.3 percent from the floor.
“Zach Peacock has really improved,” said Hewitt. “Alade Aminu obviously has made tremendous strides. By the end of the year, statistically, he was our most efficient player, in terms of shooting percentage and rebounding numbers. Those two kids in my mind have a chance to make some huge steps.”
Those four alone give Hewitt good options in the post positions, but enter 6-8 freshman Gani Lawal, a McDonald’s All-American last year after leading Norcross High School to the AAAAA state title, and 6-11 red-shirt freshman Brad Sheehan, long and thin, but intelligent and skilled in several facets of the game.
Lawal, Georgia’s Mr. Basketball and the nation’s 27th-rated senior (Rivals.com), averaged more than 18 points a game as a senior, shot 73 percent from the floor and averaged 8.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots in Norcross’s title run. Sheehan scored over 1,000 points in three high school seasons and averaged 21.5 points and 11.5 rebounds as a senior.
“You can never have too many big guys,” said Hewitt. “You need depth at the frontcourt. It provides insurance for fouls, creates competitiveness in practice, good depth on the boards, fresh bodies to run the court. I’m just thankful we have hard-working kids and are doing what they’re supposed to do.”
When Hewitt and his staff get to work with this team in October, they’ll be preparing this edition of the Yellow Jackets for a schedule that includes a November trip to the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, road games at Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana and Vanderbilt, and a December home game against Kansas, not to mention the rugged ACC slate.
The last time Tech lost a freshman to the NBA was 2003, and the Yellow Jackets won 28 games the next year and advanced to the National Championship game. History may not repeat itself, but the 2003-04 season provided a strong example that every year is always a fresh start.
“I think what it should do is tell everyone that if you have a good team, everyone works hard, anything can happen,” he said. “Again, one of the great things about college basketball, certainly talent is very important, but team play is even more important.”