Perhaps you heard Paul Hewitt say last week he hasn’t read the ol’ AJC since 2005. Perhaps you heard him mention he stopped because “our columnist here” — he meant me, I believe it’s safe to say — declared the 2004-2005 Jackets underachievers. And he’s correct. I did.
I believed then — and believe still — that a Tech team returning six of its top eight players from a run to the NCAA championship game (and that had added freshmen Anthony Morrow, Jeremis Smith and Ra’Sean Dickey) should have done better than 20-12 overall and 8-8 in the ACC. It should have done better than to enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed and then lose by 22 points in Round 2 to No. 4 seed Louisville.
Was U of L good that year? Absolutely. It reached the Final Four, where it lost in the semis to Illinois, which lost in the title game to North Carolina, which Tech had beaten in the ACC semifinals only eight days before its crash against the Cardinals. After that game, Hewitt opened his press briefing by saying: “This was no upset.”
OK, that’s the background. Here, presented without one keystroke of revision, is the apparently offending article that ran in our paper on March 21, 2005. Judge for yourselves if I had, as Hewitt claimed on 790 The Zone last Friday – here’s a link to the audio – forfeited all claim to objectivity:
Nashville — Georgia Tech has come many miles these past two seasons, but the Jackets didn’t get as far as they could have this March. Paul Hewitt believed this team was more talented than its immediate predecessor, but all that talent exited Sunday as a 22-point loser in Round 2. Louisville threw a zone at Tech, and the way to beat a zone is to shoot over it. The Jackets couldn’t. Their most renowned shooter, B.J. Elder, made one basket in his final game as a collegian.
And that was your ballgame right there. Yes, Louisville fashioned a frenzied start, making eight of its first nine shots and seizing a 13-point lead not seven minutes in, but any observer of this weekend’s doings knows that 13-point leads can be overcome. But Tech needed to make treys to pull the Cardinals out of that 2-3 zone and clear the path for drives to the basket, and the Jackets could make only six.
The knee-jerk reaction is to say that the scheming Rick Pitino outcoached Hewitt, but Tech pretty much knew Louisville would play a zone and prepared accordingly.
“What it comes down to, ” said Willie Reese, Hewitt’s assistant, “is you have to make shots.” And these Jackets, for all their skill and tenacity and seasoning, weren’t good enough shooters. There was a time when Hewitt believed Elder to be one of the nation’s best players, but as an injury-saddled senior he was never a consistent force.
Louisville smacked the Jackets hard early and sat in its zone, waiting for the run that never quite came. Elder’s lone basket drew the Jackets within nine points with 10 minutes left, but Jarrett Jack threw away an inbounds pass and Luke Schenscher walked in the lane and Taquan Dean hit the two killing 3s. “They shot extremely well, ” Will Bynum said. “There was nothing we could do.”
Well, Tech might have made a few shots of its own, but Jack and Bynum are better slashers than standstill shooters. Tech had everything it needed to reach another Final Four, everything except a reasonable facsimile of J.J. Redick. “[Louisville] did a great job of staying on shooters out of the zone, ” said Elder, who played 24 minutes and hoisted five shots, one fewer than Anthony McHenry.
Give Louisville its due. Francisco Garcia had the same sort of inspirational performance that Dwyane Wade authored when Marquette thrashed top-ranked Kentucky in a 2003 regional final, with the point being: A splendid player can, on a given March afternoon, will his team to a higher plane. Tech had lots of players, but no one who could do as Garcia did. Bynum scored 35 points against North Carolina nine days ago; he managed eight Sunday.
The Jackets’ offense failed them too many times this season. They were fine as long as they could drive to the goal, but Louisville made them play in a confined space. The Cardinals simply wrong-footed Tech. “Today we got beat by a better team, ” Hewitt said, and then he added: “A better-coached team.”
It will come as cold comfort to Tech that the Cardinals saw this game as their test. “If you can beat Georgia Tech , you can go to the Final Four and win the national championship, ” Pitino had said Saturday, and here we pause for reflection: Louisville has won two NCAA titles and been to seven Final Fours. Louisville has been a fortress of a program for 60 years, and yet the proud Cardinals and their famous coach regarded Tech, which three seasons ago was happy to make the NIT, as their peer if not their better.
Having played for one national championship, Hewitt assembled enough players to make a run at another. The indifferent regular season can be written off to injuries, but Tech had no excuses Sunday. The Jackets needed a shooter to rise up and make shots, and nobody did. This really gifted team met a really rude end.
And I’ll leave it at that — almost. The folks at 790 were kind enough to ask for my reaction to Hewitt’s contention that it has become a “personal” issue with me regarding his program. If you’re inclined, here’s the audio link to my response. (And if you’re not inclined, here was my answer: No, it hasn’t. No, it isn’t.)