Favors, Jackets round into form
ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech basketball coach Paul Hewitt tried nearly everything this season to make his players more of a team.
Hewitt brought in outsiders to put his players through team-building exercises. He tried the "good cop, bad cop" approach, trying to get his players to rally against him. He scheduled more team dinners and other team-related functions.
But none of it seemed to work, as the Yellow Jackets finished seventh in the ACC standings during the regular season.
After Georgia Tech lost to Virginia Tech 88-82 at home in their March 6 regular-season finale, a loss that left the Yellow Jackets on the NCAA tournament bubble, Hewitt tried one more desperate move.
Before the Yellow Jackets left for last week's ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Hewitt asked each of his players to turn in his cell phone.
"It's your team, but this is what I want you to do," Hewitt told his players. "If you roll with it, that's fine. If not, we'll move on."
Georgia Tech's players voted to follow their coach's advice, and each of them turned in his cell phone, Sidekick or other communication device before leaving for Greensboro.
"It was the most chatter I heard in the back of the bus all year," Hewitt said. "It sounded like the old days when I played."
For four days, Georgia Tech's players lived without phone calls, text messages, Facebook and Twitter.
And for four days, the Yellow Jackets played like an NCAA tournament-worthy team. They beat defending national champion North Carolina 62-58 in the first round, then upset co-ACC champion Maryland 69-64 in the quarterfinals. After defeating NC State 57-54 in the semifinals, Georgia Tech lost to No. 1 seed Duke 65-61 in the championship game.
On Selection Sunday, the Yellow Jackets made the NCAA tournament field as the No. 10 seed in the Midwest Regional. They will play No. 7 seed Oklahoma State in Milwaukee in the first round on Friday.
Hewitt's motivational tactic might have pushed a button with freshman forward Derrick Favors, too.
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"He was actually talking," senior guard D'Andre Bell said. "He was involved in the conversations. He was actually sparking some of the conversations."
Favors, a soft-spoken forward from South Atlanta High School, hasn't said much during his freshman season at Georgia Tech. One of the most highly regarded players ever to sign with the Yellow Jackets, Favors isn't your typical blue-chip recruit. On the court, he rarely demands the basketball and doesn't carry himself with the same bravado as other similarly talented freshmen who often spend only one year in college en route to becoming NBA lottery picks.
Favors, 6-foot-10 and 246 pounds, was pretty consistent during the regular season but didn't take over games the way the Kentucky stars did. He scored 10 points or more in 11 of the first 12 games of the season. But once ACC play began, Favors was saddled by foul trouble and seemed to struggle adjusting to the physical style of play.
"Keeping him out of foul trouble is the key," Hewitt said. "The fatigue factor wasn't an issue anymore, either. He wasn't asking to come out of games as much, and he was staying on the court longer."
In Georgia Tech's 82-75 loss at Virginia on Jan. 13, Hewitt said Favors asked to come out of the game every five to 10 minutes.
"You're a big-time player," Hewitt told him. "You cannot ask out. You've got to fight through the fatigue."
As Favors' conditioning and stamina improved, Hewitt said he was more willing to leave him on the court with multiple fouls. In eight of the last nine games, Favors had one or no fouls in the first half. Favors also had to adjust to playing with another established frontcourt player, junior Gani Lawal, who's also another potential NBA lottery pick.
"I just knew I needed to stay on the floor a little longer and didn't try to block everything," Favors said. "I knew we needed it in order to win."
Favors finally exploded during the ACC tournament. He scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds against the Tar Heels. He had 11 points and 11 rebounds against the Terrapins and scored 17 points with 8 rebounds against the Wolfpack. In the loss to Duke in the championship game, Favors scored 22 points with 11 rebounds.
"I couldn't tell you where it came from," Bell said. "I was just glad it came. I saw a different look in his eyes. If he keeps playing like that, he's going to carry us a long way."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.