Deep Yellow Jackets swarm to challenge

Four players off bench give Georgia Tech energy to outlast its opponents

NCAA Men's Basketball

April 05, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO - A little over six minutes into their NCAA tournament semifinal confrontation with Oklahoma State, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets showed their other face, the one that has helped them wear down opponent after opponent during this magical postseason run.

Onto the Alamodome floor came junior guard Will Bynum, junior forward Isma'il Muhammad, fifth-year senior Clarence Moore and sophomore forward Theodis Tarver.

They are the gang of four that has added invaluable bulk to Georgia Tech's foundation. They have given Tech a legitimate nine-man rotation. And without the steady bench support they have provided, it is hard to imagine the Yellow Jackets playing tonight for the first NCAA title in school history.

"It's hard to stop a team when you don't have a superstar, when you bring four guys off the bench who can hurt you," starting junior forward Anthony McHenry said. "You never know who is going to step up."

Take Bynum. Twice during the regular season, the 6-foot transfer from Arizona came off the bench to score at least 20 points. Three times, he led his team in scoring.

In Georgia Tech's past three postseason games, Bynum has made the shot that accounted for the game's final lead change. His driving, short bank shot on Saturday with 1.5 seconds left blunted an Oklahoma State comeback and gave the Yellow Jackets a 67-65 victory, their first win in two Final Four trips.

How have the Yellow Jackets gone this far with junior guard-forward B.J. Elder, their leading scorer, hobbled by a foot injury that finally is healing and has limited him to two points over the past three games?

Starters such as sophomore point guard Jarrett Jack, senior guard Marvin Lewis and junior center Luke Schenscher have produced outstanding games. Beyond that, Tech's dramatic rise is mainly about waves of fresh legs, about depth and about interchangeable parts that plug into Tech's offensive and defensive schemes.

Consider that, in five NCAA tournament victories decided by a total of 23 points, the Yellow Jackets' reserves have outscored their opponents' by a combined 107-49 and out-rebounded them by a combined 69-25. Consider that eight Tech players average at least 18.2 minutes of playing time. Only Jack exceeds the 30-minute mark on average.

"A lot of guys play 30 to 40 minutes on other teams and don't have time to get the rest they might need. We have guys who come in [off the bench] and the level of intensity doesn't drop off," Moore said.

Moore, 6-5, has backed up his words. He averages 5.9 points, shoots 39 percent from three-point range, and put his best tournament foot forward with 14 points, six rebounds and a career-high five steals in Tech's overtime victory against Kansas in the St. Louis Regional championship game.

"With the depth of this ballclub, I think you can overcome a lot of different things," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, who looks admiringly at the nine-man rotation the 2002 Maryland Terrapins rode to their NCAA title.

The gang of four each brings a different spark to the mix. Bynum is the lightning-quick guy who can play either guard position and is not afraid to handle or shoot the ball in crunch time. Moore, the charismatic leader who sat out last year while dealing with the death of his mother, Avis, is the locker room cop with the deadly jumper. He cajoles or gets after teammates when the time demands it.

Tarver, 6-9, suffered a dislocated knee early in the preseason that cost him the season's first 13 games. He has returned to his promising freshman form by giving the Yellow Jackets a dependable rebounder and shot blocker who can spell Schenscher. His six rebounds against Kansas marked a season high.

And Muhammad, 6-6, is simply a game changer, with his penchant for spectacular dunks and rebounds and lockdown defense. He started six games earlier this season before accepting a return to the bench without a peep. He is tied for fourth on the team in scoring (9.3 ppg), shoots 57.8 percent from the floor and has hit double figures 15 times.

"Nothing has changed for me. I still play with same energy I normally do," said Muhammad, who is nursing patella tendinitis in his right knee. "Our starters aren't scared to leave the game because we might lose a lead. There have been a lot of times when we [backups] have gone into the game and our lead has gone up, or we might be losing and then we get the lead back."

Hewitt loves the unselfishness that defines this team. He enjoys the way the reserves and the starters have beaten each other up in practice for months, making each other better the whole time. He appreciates the way a talent such as Bynum has embraced his backup role behind Jack.

Bynum, who averages 9.3 points, acknowledges that he wouldn't mind getting more than 20.4 minutes a game. But he can't argue with Hewitt's methods.

"It's tough watching the game. I'm a competitor and I want to be out there [more]," Bynum said. "I'll take going to the Final Four and hitting the shot to go to the championship game over averaging 34 for a team that's not here."

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