Hewitt, Tech somehow surviving
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- How do you like Paul Hewitt now, Georgia Tech fans?
Because you're pretty much stuck with him, like a 15-year mortgage or a set of plastic stadium cups. After a season of talking about it, there's no firing the coach of the Yellow Jackets at this point. Whatever case you want to make against his work ever since the 2004 Final Four, it's been trumped now that the Jackets are in the NCAA tournament and in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final -- in spite of themselves, at times.
This seventh-seeded Tech team cannot dribble, cannot pass, cannot hit free throws, cannot exploit a massive size and talent advantage when it has one, cannot inbound the ball to save its life -- and so far, cannot be beaten in here. They are staggeringly inconsistent, yet also undefeated in this upset-riddled tourney.
"We're kind of imperfect sometimes," Hewitt said with a winner's laugh.
You want imperfect? Here's imperfect: Tech has the lowest free throw percentage of any team that has played three ACC tourney games in the event's 56-year history, at 54.7 percent. In upsetting Maryland on Friday and outlasting No. 11 seed North Carolina State on Saturday, Tech has made 42 field goals -- and committed 41 turnovers. Its victories here, by a total of 12 points, mark its first three-game ACC winning streak of the season.
In the Yellow Jackets' 57-54 semifinal triumph over the Wolfpack, lottery pick Derrick Favors got only 10 shots in 34 minutes. Fellow low-post power Gani Lawal got seven shots in just 23 minutes. They made the most of those touches, combining for 29 points, but you wonder: How can Hewitt stand watching the rest of the team launch 24 shots and make six without breaking his clipboard over his head?
Even one of Hewitt's own players seemed befuddled by Tech's inability to capitalize on its interior edge against an undersized NC State team.
"I thought with our frontcourt, Gani and Favors, we would have won comfortably," said guard D'Andre Bell, who made six clutch free throws to help ice the game. "But as you can see "
As we can see, Tech allowed State to make much more of this game than it should have. The resourceful Wolfpack were down 10 at halftime but hit the Jackets with a 17-3 run to start the second half, and actually held the lead for the majority of the final 20 minutes. But Favors and Bell combined to score 11 of Tech's last 12 points, and State guard Javier Gonzalez had an intentional-foul meltdown in the final 90 seconds, and those things allowed Hewitt to punch two fists into the air at the final horn.
Bring on top-seeded Duke. Bring on a fourth game in four days.
"What fatigue?" asked Bell. "It doesn't exist in this game."
Hewitt basically employed the same denial defense in response to a question about whether the Tech fans are in his corner.
"The fans have been great, that's the one thing that's been consistent," he said. "There are other areas where some cheap shots have been taken. When I walk through the airports and go out to dinner with my family, you would be shocked how this stuff has turned and now everybody goes out of their way to say, 'Hey, coach, we respect what you are doing.'"
The cheap shots would presumably be from the Atlanta media, some of whom have had the impertinence to question Hewitt's body of work at Tech.
The fans have been great, that's the one thing that's been consistent. There are other areas where some cheap shots have been taken. When I walk through the airports and go out to dinner with my family, you would be shocked how this stuff has turned and now everybody goes out of their way to say, 'Hey, coach, we respect what you are doing.'" -- Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt
When the Jackets made their stunning run to the 2004 national title game in Hewitt's fourth year at Tech, he looked like a rising star in the coaching profession. But since then, that has looked more and more like a fluke.
His league record has been 45-67, including a 7-9 mark this season. And the Jackets have played in only two of the past five NCAA tournaments, winning a single game.
That's not because there has been a dearth of talent at Tech. Since '04, Hewitt has had three players drafted in the first round: Jarrett Jack, Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young. Granted, they didn't hang around campus very long, but they were there and Hewitt didn't do a lot with them.
But the coach owns what some insiders say is the best contract in college basketball: a deal that automatically rolls over and contains a whopper buyout at all times. That, and the signing of superstar recruit Favors, might have been the two most important advantages Hewitt had when it came to job security.
And now Favors and Lawal have at least gotten Tech back into the NCAA tournament -- where, if the Jackets play like they did in the first half against Maryland on Friday, they could be dangerous. Then again, if they play like they did in the second half against Maryland, or for most of the game against NC State, they could get run by 20 in the first round.
But today, none of the aggravations that accompany this Tech team matter. The Jackets have done what they came here to do, pushing their way off the bubble and into the NCAA field.
Which means Paul Hewitt isn't going to be run out of his job anytime soon.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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