Ga. Tech emerging as a winner

Youthful Yellow Jackets have won 7 of 9 games, avenged 5 ACC defeats

ACC notebook

March 01, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Georgia Tech most likely will miss the NCAA tournament and will finish no higher than fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Yet the 2001-02 season has been anything but a failure in Atlanta.

Take away the Maryland-Duke axis dwarfing the rest of the league, and the most dangerous squad might be the Yellow Jackets, who are surely the most improved. With Wednesday's 90-77 victory over No. 24 Wake Forest, Georgia Tech has won seven of its past nine games, and has beaten five teams it lost to during the first half of the conference schedule.

The Yellow Jackets (14-15, 6-9) have come a long way from their 0-7 ACC start, which was not a shock. Other than senior point guard Tony Akins, only freshmen and sophomores make up the Georgia Tech roster.

"All along I was saying once we get that first [victory], things would start coming together," said second-year coach Paul Hewitt, who guided Tech to the NCAAs a year ago.

Hewitt worried about the losses sapping his team's confidence, despite his positive preaching. But the players never stopped buying into his pressing, up-tempo system that stresses defense and the three-point shot.

"The thing that was amazing was, more times than not, I'd walk into practice wondering what kind of mood they were in," he said. "Most of the time, they were upbeat. It's a very mature group."

And what a stable of young talent the Yellow Jackets have, starting with sophomore guard Marvin Lewis, who is a budding star and should be among the top three-point shooters in the ACC next year. Then there is the freshmen trio of guard/forward B.J. Elder, small forward Isma'il Muhammad and power forward Ed Nelson.

Nelson leads all ACC freshmen with an average of 6.8 rebounds to go with an 8.2-point scoring average. Muhammad (6.9 ppg) is one of Tech's top athletes. Elder ranks third among the league's freshmen in scoring (9.4 ppg). And 7-foot freshman center Luke Schenscher shook off early-season injuries, allowed Nelson to move to his normal position and became a legitimate defensive presence.

Too bad Akins won't be around to enjoy the rest of the revival. He has led the Yellow Jackets in more ways than his scoring, assists, steals and free-throw shooting. He also has held the youngsters together. For example, it was Akins, not Hewitt, who ripped the Yellow Jackets in the post-game locker room after they seemed to give up in an 85-65 loss at Maryland 16 days ago. They have won four in a row since.

When asked to consider this season without Akins, Hewitt said, "He's been a much better leader and defender for us than he was last year. He's the guy that sets everything up for us. He's been everything for us."

Assisting the success

On 15 occasions this season, Maryland has recorded at least 20 assists, and the Terps are 15-0 when they do it. Throughout its ACC play, Maryland has led the league in assists and they are averaging a league-high 20.3 assists through 27 games.

Maryland did many things right while pounding Florida State, 96-63, and clinching a tie for the regular-season league title on Wednesday. Terps coach Gary Williams pointed to the team's unselfishness first.

"We went into the NCAA tournament last year having more assists than any team in the tournament. That's always the key for us," Williams said. "We do have good shooters, but we're not the type of team necessarily that can break you down off the dribble. If we set screens and then hit the guys when they're open, that's how we score."

Junior point guard Steve Blake, who is having his best season, has been setting the tone all year. Blake ranks second in the league and third in the country with 8.1 assists, while averaging only 3.2 turnovers. Blake and backup Drew Nicholas have combined to produce 286 assists and just 114 turnovers - a sparkling 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Sendek survives hot seat

At the season's outset, North Carolina State's Herb Sendek, Clemson's Larry Shyatt and Florida State's Steve Robinson were the coaches on the hot seat. Sendek is safe, since he is on the verge of taking the Wolfpack to its first NCAA tournament in 11 years.

League sources said Robinson will be fired after his fourth straight losing season, which has been punctuated by eight defeats in the Seminoles' past nine games. Leonard Hamilton and Tim Floyd have been rumored as possible replacements.

As for Shyatt, despite finishing in the ACC basement again, missing a postseason bid for the third straight year and having won only 24 percent of his league games, there is speculation he will return for the final year of his five-year contract.

Shyatt is in a tough situation. Coming into this season, Clemson only had a .337 winning percentage in 48 years of ACC competition, which doesn't make for a healthy recruiting situation. Still, players like junior point Edward Scott, sophomore guard Tony Stockman and sophomore forward Ed Hobbs have made the Tigers a competitive team on many nights.

Athletic director Robby Robinson announced his retirement, effective in June. Robinson might decide to keep Shyatt around, although next season promises to be challenging. For starters, the ongoing renovations at Littlejohn Coliseum will include an unexpected replacement of the building's roof.

That means some or all of next year's home games will be played in Greenville, S.C., 45 minutes from the campus.

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