ATLANTA - Theodis Tarver has been waiting all season for this opportunity. Like his team, he's going to try and take advantage of it.
Tarver, Georgia Tech's freshman center, will make his first start of the season in the Yellow Jackets' National Invitation Tournament opener against Ohio State tonight at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
"It's kind of shocking," Tarver said after learning of the assignment. "I'd hoped to start at least one game. This is my opportunity to try and show what I've got."
Slowly, the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Tarver has been showing the Georgia Tech coaching staff what he's got.
Once leery of putting the athletic but inexperienced Tarver on the court, Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt has had a change of heart because of Tarver's improvement in practice.
Tarver, who did not play for six straight games during the ACC schedule, has played 38 minutes in Georgia Tech's past three games, including a season-high 21 against Virginia.
"He's making strides, playing stronger and not turning the ball over," Hewitt said. "He has really done a better job of holding onto the ball, of being strong with it and not getting stripped."
Tarver credits his improvement with becoming more comfortable on the court and with the college game.
After committing 10 turnovers in his first 80 minutes - stretched over 12 games - Tarver has committed one in 38 minutes.
"I'm not rushing as much. In the beginning, you start rushing, you try to make everything right, and you start to worry about stuff and you make more mistakes," Tarver said. "Once you start getting in that comfort zone, you're able to do more of what you usually do instead of stepping out of character."
What Tarver does is rebound, set good screens and provide the Yellow Jackets with a presence in the post, something Georgia Tech has been lacking with Luke Schenscher's struggles. Hewitt said Ed Nelson will continue to get starter's minutes, but he prefers to bring Nelson off the bench.
Thus Tarver will get first crack at stopping Ohio State's 7-foot center Velimir Radinovic, who's averaging 9.3 points per game and is a key to the Buckeyes' solid half-court offense.
"I know he's going to have some butterflies in the beginning," junior captain Marvin Lewis said. "But it's my job to pull him aside and tell him, 'It's just like any other game, just like any other opportunity. Just try to make the best of it."'
That's exactly what Georgia Tech is hoping to do throughout the NIT.
Hewitt was an assistant with Villanova in 1994, when a young Wildcats squad won the tournament and used it as a springboard to the Big East title in 1995.
"It's just another chance for us to show that we can play at a high level, play big games and win big games," Tarver said. "The more we get to play and the more we get to practice, the better we'll be in the end."
Tarver could well be talking about himself.
OHIO STATE AT GEORGIA TECH
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Site: Alexander Memorial Coliseum (9,191), Atlanta.
Series record: Ohio State leads 11-1.
Last meeting: Ohio State 65-61, March 17, 1991.
Coaches: Paul Hewitt (46-43, 3rd season; 112-70, 6th season overall), Georgia Tech; Jim O'Brien (119-71, 6th season, 354-288, 21st season overall), Ohio State.
Records: Georgia Tech 14-14; Ohio State 17-14.
Starting Lineups: Georgia Tech: G Jarrett Jack, 6-3, 198, Fr. (9.7 ppg, 6.9 apg); G Marvin Lewis, 6-4, 208, Jr. (12.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg); G B.J. Elder, 6-4, 218, So. (15.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg); F Chris Bosh, 6-10, 210, Fr. (15.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg); C Theodis Tarver, 6-9, 230, Fr. (2.0 ppg, 1.5 rpg). Ohio State: G Brent Darby, 6-1, 195, Sr. (18.5 ppg, 4.5 apg); G Sean Williams, 6-5, 210, Sr. (11.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg); F Shun Jenkins, 6-6, 235, Jr. (5.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg); F Matt Sylvester, 6-7, 200, Fr. (5.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg); C Velimir Radinovic, 7-0, 230, Jr. (9.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg).
Outlook: Ohio State suspended forward Zach Williams (6-7, 230, Jr.) who was averaging 9.3 ppg and 5.2 rpg for "conduct detrimental to the team." Williams will miss the entire NIT after a disagreement with O'Brien during the Big Ten tournament final.