Inexperienced Yellow Jackets could come of age next season

Georgia Tech has shown flashes of talent despite last-place standing

ACC notebook

January 18, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

They reside in the basement of the Atlantic Coast Conference, yet the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are a team worth watching. And by next season, don't be surprised if coach Paul Hewitt's squad is making a move toward the upper half of the league standings and angling for a return to the NCAA tournament.

The Yellow Jackets (7-10, 0-4) are the youngest team in the conference, with only one senior in point guard Tony Akins and one junior in reserve forward David Ewing.

They usually start freshman forward Ed Nelson, redshirt sophomore forward Clarence Moore, sophomore forward Robert Brooks and sophomore shooting guard Marvin Lewis. Their key backups include freshman forward Isma'il Muhammad, freshman guard Anthony McHenry, sophomore swingman Halston Lane and freshman guard B.J. Elder.

All of that inexperience had led to some terrible nights, like the 104-79 pasting Georgia Tech endured at Duke on Jan. 10. Then again, the Yellow Jackets have flashed their talent and given their fans hope for the future, as they did three days later by hanging tough with visiting, No. 3 Maryland before falling, 92-87.

"They know they are getting close," said Hewitt, who won ACC Coach of the Year honors a year ago, after guiding the Yellow Jackets to the NCAA tournament in his first season at Georgia Tech Hewitt already has used six different starting lineups this season.

"There can be some highs and lows," he said. "The only time it can be frustrating is when you see somebody repeat a mistake, and that doesn't happen much with this team. We see improvement game by game. Even though we're 0-4 [in the league], we feel we're very close to turning things around."

Although Georgia Tech could use a little more size and will have to replace an excellent floor general in Akins, the components are in place for a major recovery next season.

Lewis, a second-year starter, already is one of the league's better outside shooters (44 percent from three-point range). Muhammad has shaken off a hip pointer and has averaged 10 points in his past four games. He was one of the more athletic players on the floor against Maryland. And Nelson leads ACC freshmen with a seven-rebound average. His 18-point showing against the Terps matched his season high.

Nelson, 6 feet 7, and Muhammad, 6-5, were especially impressive against Maryland, as they attacked the bigger, more experienced Terps repeatedly inside and drew fouls.

Dixon moving up

Maryland senior shooting guard Juan Dixon continues on a path toward becoming the first Terrapin since John Lucas (1972-1974) to earn first-team All-ACC honors in three consecutive seasons.

"Anybody who thinks [Dixon] can't play at the next level [in the NBA] isn't seeing what I'm seeing," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, after watching Dixon put away Georgia Tech by producing a key steal and assist and sinking four free throws in the final minute.

Williams said Dixon showed his trademark competitive fire as early as his true freshman and redshirt freshman years.

"Even when he wasn't playing, he was so tough to guard in practice, he made us better. The year Juan was playing behind Steve Francis, he never complained," Williams said.

Cavs take a fall

The way Virginia coach Pete Gillen sees it, the Cavaliers got the comeuppance they deserved.

After a 9-0 start against weak competition, Virginia rose to No. 4, then lost at home to unranked N.C. State before getting whipped at Clemson. The Cavaliers fell to No. 10, but revived themselves with a close win at North Carolina, before returning home to whip No. 14 Wake Forest on Tuesday.

And they did it without the services of explosive swingman Adam Hall, who is out indefinitely with a foot injury. That has forced Gillen to move point guard Roger Mason Jr. back to his natural shooting guard position and increase the playing time of freshmen point guards Keith Jenifer (Towson Catholic) and Jermaine Harper.

"I think we got an electric shock," Gillen said. "I think our guys got caught up in the media and the rankings. You win a couple of games, and people start patting you on the back. I think our guys got a little self-absorbed, thinking they could turn it on and off. These guys are not computers.

"I think we have the potential to be a very good team, but we haven't been in sync. We're still trying to put our parts together. The engine [at point guard] is not very smooth. We're still kind of floating, like a tumbleweed blowing all over the ground."

Fans get rough

For those who thought these things only happen when Duke plays at Maryland, the Blue Devils took a public relations hit last week, when the mother of Georgia Tech's Akins got into a fight with a female Duke student during the team's rout of the Yellow Jackets.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a brief skirmish began when Myong Akins slipped and fell while trying to take her seat behind the Georgia Tech bench. Akins reportedly landed on the student. Akins told police the student grabbed her hair. The student maintained she grabbed Akins' arm in an effort to protect her and other patrons. The women exchanged blows.

No injuries were reported, and no charges have been filed.

Last Jan. 27 at Cole Field House, the mother of Duke center Carlos Boozer was struck in the head by a plastic water bottle thrown from the student section at the end of Duke's come-from-behind victory.

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