ATLANTA - After consecutive home losses and increasing concern that Georgia Tech's best basketball was played months ago, Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt is doing his best to ease any crisis of confidence.
"The best thing to do is remind them that we're 19-8 and ranked 18th in the country. We're still a very good basketball team," Hewitt said. "We haven't played up to our level over the last couple of games."
Hewitt can only hope his positive spin is enough to lift his team from its doldrums. The 18th-ranked Yellow Jackets (19-8, 6-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) travel to Clemson (10-15, 3-11) for a pivotal game today. Georgia Tech is tied with North Carolina for fourth in the conference, a half-game ahead of Florida State.
"I don't think a 6-7 mark in this league is anything to be ashamed of," Hewitt said. "Am I disappointed that we're 6-7? Sure. But I'm not ashamed of it."
It's still quite a distance from the lofty perch from which the Yellow Jackets entered conference play. Tech once stood 12-0 and No. 3 in the country. Those late December days seem long gone now. The Yellow Jackets are just 7-8 since that school-best start - and with three losses in their past four games, including two in a row at home, some frustration has set in.
"It's tough. Coming into ACC play as one of the favorites and then dropping down, it's kind of frustrating," point guard Jarrett Jack said.
Defense has been the Yellow Jackets' most recent sore spot. Through their first 25 games, they had not allowed any team to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor. But in each of the past two - home losses to Wake Forest and North Carolina State - their opponents did just that.
Wake shot a blistering 57 percent, and the Wolfpack followed with 51 percent shooting. In each game, Georgia Tech was overtaken down the stretch when it simply couldn't stop the opponent.
"That's a big concern. Our defense has been our mainstay all year and that's what triggers our transition game," Hewitt said. "Defensively, we have not been using that as a weapon as we have all year."
Forward Isma'il Muhammad, the team's most hawkish defender, has been limited by foul trouble in the past three games. He's fouled out in each of them and played a combined 24 minutes in the losses to Wake Forest and N.C. State.
Without Muhammad, the team's defensive energy has sagged, a concern with the ACC Tournament two weeks away.
"We need to pick up our defensive energy - us, collectively. If we do it collectively as a team, we're much more effective," Jack said. "(At the beginning of the season), we came out energetic from the jump, not needing a run or a spurt to make us want to play. We were just on for 40 minutes."
A return to that level would do more than any words of encouragement in helping the Yellow Jackets get back on track.
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