ATLANTA -- Ask Bobby Cremins if he thought freshman center Alvin Jones would have an immediate impact and the Georgia Tech coach breaks into a smile.
If Cremins says no, he admits he got a little lucky. If he says yes, he's bending the truth.
"We didn't think Alvin would start right away," Cremins finally concedes, adding that sophomore Pablo Machado, a former Georgia Mr. Basketball, was penciled in at center. "We expected Alvin to come in and learn. But he showed so much athleticism, we knew he needed to be on the floor right away."
A 6-11, 260-pound product out of Lakeland, Fla., Jones is a key reason the Yellow Jackets (14-8 overall, 3-6 ACC) still are in contention for a postseason berth going into today's 1 p.m. game with North Carolina (23-1, 9-1) at Alexander Coliseum.
Jones' scoring and rebounding aren't anything special -- 6.5 points and 6.6 rebounds a game. But his defensive presence in the middle has given Tech a new look this year.
A gifted jumper with natural instincts, Jones leads the ACC and ranks second nationally in blocked shots with 4.6 a game game. He has swatted away 102 shots in 22 games, 20 more than any other Tech player has totaled in a full season.
Jones already ranks fourth on Tech's career list, and at this pace, will surpass the school record of 243 blocks held by NBA veteran John Salley next February.
Georgia Southern coach Gregg Polinsky, whose team gave up eight blocks to Jones last month, likens the challenge of attacking Jones to what he faced as an assistant at Alabama when battling LSU's Shaquille O'Neal.
"This sounds silly, but when we played Shaquille, we would say, `Don't take the ball to him, take it through him,"' Polinsky said. "But I don't think we got close enough to (Jones) to take it through him. You can't give a guy like him any cushion because his timing is so good. He has a real talent to block shots, and do it without fouling out."
Jones had a school-record 11 blocked shots against Winthrop in Tech's season opener, and he has fattened up against other undersized foes. But he also has fared well against ACC opponents, averaging 3.7 blocks a game. He had an additional six blocks against Alabama and seven against Miami.
"I try to go after any shot that I think I have a chance at," Jones said. "Sometimes I might be doing that just to make them miss, to alter their shot. But I usually go after them intending to block them."
Though named to Basketball America's Super 64 team, Jones was a less-heralded signee than Dion Glover, a Parade and McDonald's All-American, and Travis Spivey, who was listed among the top 30 players in the country by some services.
Glover ranks third nationally among freshmen in scoring with an 18.1-point average. But Jones has been at least as valuable because of his defense.
"I knew from our first few practices that Alvin Jones was going to be one of the big surprises in the ACC," said senior forward Matt Harpring. "It's exciting to think about the player he has a chance to become."
Many recruiting observers assumed Jones would land at Florida. He grew up in Lakeland, and his father and high school coach, Alvin Sr., had connections with the school. James Jones, the former Gator running back and longtime NFL standout, is Alvin Jr.'s uncle.
And Jones likes warm weather. (As if to illustrate that point, he wore a heavy ski jacket to an interview last week on a 50-degree day.)
But after narrowing a list that included UCLA and Kentucky to only Florida and Tech, Jones decided Tech offered more.
"Florida's just not a basketball school like Georgia Tech is," he said. "Maybe they will be one day, but the SEC is nothing like the ACC. It's a totally different conference, and I've always wanted to play in the ACC."
Jones said he wanted to go to a school where basketball was at least on equal footing with the football program.
"No matter what they do in basketball at Florida, they'll never outshine the football team," Jones said. "Even if they win four national championships, they still won't (be viewed the same) as the football team."
Too raw on offense to garner much attention from the NBA at this juncture, Jones will return next year and be paired up front with 7-foot Indiana transfer Jason Collier.
If Glover doesn't leave after this season, Tech could have the makings of an ACC contender in 1998-99.
"It'll be real nasty," Jones said. "I think we're going to have a chance to go for the title next year -- that's how good I think we can be."
A quality student-athlete who sometimes attends Catholic Mass with Cremins and Harpring despite being Presbyterian, Jones laughs when he thinks back to his boyhood days as an athletics kind of ugly duckling.
"I always wanted to play football because every kid from Florida usually plays football," he said. "In Florida, you go outside and play pickup football, not pickup basketball. I really wanted to play football when I was very young. But I had the basketball frame. I was tall and skinny -- a real thin kid."
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