Originally created 04/01/04

Yellow Jackets keep winning despite setbacks



First they lose the previous two conference freshmen of the year - including an NBA Draft lottery pick - and get invited to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three seasons.

Then they lose all scoring from their injured leading scorer in the regional crunch and slide through to the Final Four.

You start to get the idea that the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are just one violation of team rules by a point guard or academic suspension of its center away from winning their first national championship.

"More than anything else, I have confidence in my players," coach Paul Hewitt said.

If Georgia Tech's resilience and rise to prominence is a surprise to any of us, it's because we didn't listen to Hewitt way back in October, when he said this would happen. He spoke so optimistically at a preseason tip-off luncheon at Augusta's Radisson Riverfront Hotel that I wondered if his sweet tea was spiked.

Hewitt talked Oct. 13 about the outstanding growth of B.J. Elder's talent, the enormous development of Jarrett Jack's game management, the colossal strides of Luke Schenscher's confidence, the tremendous explosiveness of Isma'il Muhammad's instincts, the pending impact of Will Bynum's spark and the critical importance of Marvin Lewis' and Clarence Moore's leadership.

Hewitt also tossed around names such as Anthony McHenry, Theodis Tarver and Robert Brooks as if mentioning them would make us believe these Jackets were deep and strong.

"We have as much depth or more depth than anybody in the league in the front court and our perimeter is going to be strong," Hewitt said. "It was just a matter of our guys going out and proving to everybody that they were good."

Consider it proven. Georgia Tech backed up Hewitt's faith right off the bat, racing to a school record 12-0 start that included an eye-opening victory over No. 1 Connecticut in the preseason NIT final. As the quality depth of the ACC took its toll, the Jackets sent another warning shot with a stunning win over Duke on the road.

But no test was bigger than last week in the St. Louis Regional when Georgia Tech turned back Nevada and Kansas without Elder scoring a single point because of a sprained ankle suffered just over a minute into the first game.

Suddenly, Lewis and Jack and Schenscher and Bynum and Muhammad and McHenry and all that depth stepped up and delivered.

"The thing is, we're not surprised when things like this happen," Jack said earlier this year when Bynum and Schenscher carried the Jackets to a victory over Maryland. "We don't have that one dominant scorer to depend on every night. We have any number of guys who can step up for us."

That's the way Hewitt prefers it. A team built and coached like a real team is able to withstand a little adversity when it matters most.

"I've been a big believer in recruiting guys that want a chance to get better and keep working and play eight or nine guys," Hewitt said of his formula that vaguely resembles that of 2002 NCAA champs Maryland. "You don't assure yourself success with that, but you do avoid potential disaster if you lose a guy like B.J. Elder."

Hewitt was preaching that long before this season began. When sensational post player Chris Bosh jumped to the NBA and bruising forward Ed Nelson transferred out, Hewitt wasn't as quick as his critics to judge the immediate future of his program as troubled. He didn't sound worried at all when he talked to Moore a year ago about rejoining the team after a season off.

"I think he just makes everybody believe in what he's saying," Moore said. "He told me in April that if I came back to the team then we could have a shot at making it to the Final Four. I kind of shook my head like, 'OK, we might have a chance.'"

Here they are, in April, among the Final Four teams left standing - two of which Georgia Tech has already proven it can beat. Hewitt tried to tell us all along that they belonged.

"This is a good basketball team," he said. "I wouldn't call it a bunch of role players. This is a very talented basketball team and that's what it takes to get where we are."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.