ATLANTA, Dec. 2 - Paul Hewitt saw all the grievous predictions, heard all the gloom-and-doom talk. He couldn’t understand it.
TO ANYONE WHO WOULD listen, the Georgia Tech basketball coach insisted his team could have a very successful season. Seventh place in the ACC? Come on, get serious.
“They made it sound like there was nobody left to play at Georgia Tech,” Hewitt said. “But this is the most experienced team I’ve had since I’ve been here. If we were talented — and I knew we were — experience and talent usually means a good team.”
Turns out the coach was right.
Georgia Tech stormed back into The Associated Press rankings for the first time in six years with a 16-point romp over former No. 1 Connecticut and a 20-point destruction of Bob Knight’s Texas Tech team in the Preseason NIT.
The Yellow Jackets (5-0) are No. 13, actually picking up three first-place votes after failing to make any ballots the previous week.
“We knew people didn’t expect much out of us,” said Isma’il Muhammad, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the week. “We didn’t let it get us down.”
Last season, the Yellow Jackets went 16-15, finished fifth in the ACC and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. They seemed destined to improve on those numbers — until the top two big men skipped out of town.
Chris Bosh, the ACC rookie of the year, left school after only one season and went fourth in the NBA draft. Ed Nelson, unhappy about his playing time, transferred to Connecticut.
With that in mind, the ACC media picked Georgia Tech to finish seventh in the nine-team league. Hardly anyone projected the Yellow Jackets as a potential NCAA team.
The prognosticators weren’t impressed by a lineup built around guards B.J. Elder, Jarrett Jack and Marvin Lewis. They didn’t realize Muhammad had the potential to be a game-changing force off the bench.
InsertArt(2083822)“Just look at the players we have,” Elder said. “I know we’re a little slack on the inside. I know the guards are the focal point. But we definitely have guards who can compete with anyone in the country.”
Elder is one of the nation’s most overlooked players, a guy who can slash to the basket or pull up for a jumper. The 6-foot-4 junior leads the Yellow Jackets in scoring at 16.6 points per game.
Jack is carving out a niche in Georgia Tech’s long history of stellar point guards (Mark Price, Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury). The 6-3 sophomore is averaging 14.5 points, leads the team in rebounding (6.2) and has a stellar assist-to-turnover ratio (44-16).
Lewis, a 6-4 senior, is the best pure shooter, connecting on 37 percent of his career 3-pointers.
Then there’s Muhammad, who took Madison Square Garden by storm last week.
In 38 minutes of playing time against UConn and Texas Tech, the 6-6 junior scored 38 points. He made 16 of 20 shots and left the fans oohing and aahing with enough spectacular dunks to earn his own line of sneakers.
“He owned the building,” Hewitt said. “He’s a highlight waiting to happen.”
Muhammad was a late bloomer, which is understandable. He played at a tiny Atlanta high school that didn’t even have its own gym. His first two seasons at Tech, he showed flashes of brilliance but struggled to master the nuances of the game.
“He’s reading defenses a lot better,” Hewitt said. “He’s not just making a bull run to the basket every time. If there’s an opening, he’ll go all the way. If not, he’ll pull up and shoot or pass the ball off.”
Everyone is playing defense, stifling teams with quickness and relentless pressure. Opponents are shooting only 36 percent from the field against the Yellow Jackets.
Under Bobby Cremins, Georgia Tech was one of the ACC’s most prominent programs in the 1980s and ’90s. John Salley, Dennis Scott and Tom Hammonds played for the Yellow Jackets.
Cremins guided the school to 10 NCAA tournament appearances, three Atlantic Coast Conference titles and one Final Four.
But the school fell on hard times after Marbury bolted in 1996. Cremins lost his recruiting touch, missed the NCAAs four years in a row and was eased into retirement.
Enter Hewitt, who was the coach at little-known Siena. He took the Yellow Jackets to a surprising NCAA berth in 2002 — earning ACC coach of the year honors — but stumbled a bit the last two years, going 31-31 with teams short on experience.
“Every since I got here, coach has been saying he wants to get this program back to where it used to be,” said Muhammad, one of Hewitt’s first commitments. “We’re starting to see it go that way.”
Georgia Tech, which plays at Ohio State on Wednesday night, has won its first five games by an average of 22 points. The Yellow Jackets will get a further boost when guard Will Bynum, a transfer from Arizona, becomes eligible this month.
They already have the General’s seal of approval.
“I was as impressed with watching Georgia Tech as I have been with any team in a long time,” Knight said. “There is an energy there that they have when they play. I think this is a very, very good basketball team.”
© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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