Thursday, December 27, 2007

Hoops - Do We Dare to Love Again?

When you fall in love and get your heart broken, it's hard to love again. It's hard to let yourself be vulnerable and put yourself out on a limb again. Darn those Tech hoopsters if they aren't trying to win us back.

Don't get me wrong - I never gave up on this crew, and it's crazy early to talk like that, but it was easy to treat them like a casual friend. You know, the one you talk to every once in awhile but really don't have a lot invested in.

Ok, weird intro, but tonight the Jackets beat a fairly unimpressive Tennessee Tech team in their 2nd straight dominating performance. Yeah, there were some sloppy stretches, but you can see an energy in this team the last few games that was only there in very short stretches so far this season. You can see a marked improvement on the defensive end of the floor, and it's just enough to make you think that maybe they have really turned a corner.

So again, I ask you, are you ready to start believing again - which means raising your expectations back up a notch? Are you ready to be vulnerable again?

Let's look at some random thoughts about this edition of the hoops-Jackets

You know, from a mix of youth + experience, you really couldn't ask for more. Losing Ra'Sean Dickey for the season will hurt, but having him back next year may help next year more than missing him hurts this year. Did that make sense? However, when you have seniors like Jeremis Smith and A-Mo, juniors D-Bell, L.Clinch and A.Aminu, you should have the nucleus of a winning squad. In my book, experience should just about trump talent in most cases. Then you throw in a good mix of 1st / 2nd year guys, and you really have what should be a great team make-up. Of course, chemistry is a different issue, but from a program continuity standpoint, this year's class is the best mix of the Hewitt era.

This is a tough one for me. I really liked the recruiting class of A-Mo, Dickey, Smith and Zam Fredrerick. I thought they had the makings of something special. Here we are 4 years later and we are still waiting. I don't want to be negative, but this class has yet to really make their mark on the program.

Frederick was a nice kid but not ready to "play a role" on a team when he grew up being "the man", playing ball for his father who was "the man" in his college days. Zam was forced to play PG his final year here, which proved to be low ceiling. Zam transferred to SC, which was probably best for the GT squad and best for him.

Jeremis Smith proved to be a leader, a workhorse, a physical presence, a brute, and an absolutely undersized guy at the PF spot who never showed a jumpshot from anywhere. He wins every lunch-pail, blue-collar, Moses Malone award ever invented, and has always given everything he had. A brutal knee injury cut a chunk out of his collegiate career and it has taken a long time to regain the explosiveness we heard about in high school. But again, he consistently goes out there and muscles up against guys who are taller with longer arms. Get Jeremis in the open floor and you better not get in his way. From a standing position however, he just is limited in his explosiveness. Where does he spend most of his time? In the post. He has always had the intangibles - leadership, hard work, getting his hands dirty. You have to like what he has given Tech in terms of effort and leadership.

Anthony Morrow is one of the most highly thought of players to come out of North Carolina. He played at a small school (Charlotte Latin), but he dominated and was very well coached. He reputation as a dead-eye shooter has been proven time-and-time again at Tech. The guy has one of the prettiest shots you'll find and one of the quickest releases you'll find. He has always ranked in the top long-distance shooters in the ACC. Where A-Mo always seemed to struggle was at the defensive end of the floor and breaking down defenders offensively. A-Mo has always just seemed a bit slow-footed, with a longer, almost loping stride. He gets broken down defensively easily, although he has clearly improved this season. Offensively, A-Mo is almost a catch-and-shoot guy exclusively - although it's not for lack of effort. He tries to break guys down, but it's just not his game. It's just not hard to stay in front of him. I do like the way A-Mo scraps inside. He doesn't mind going after boards.

Ra'Sean Dickey. Where to start. From day 1 I always thought this guy had more potential than anyone on the team - and maybe even the conference. I sat courtside while he went head-to-head against Dwight Howard at a high school tourney in Greenville ("Battle of the Border") years ago. He caused Howard to foul out early in the 2nd half, while Dickey ended with 21 points and 6 boards. He had some thundering dunks that night (on a side note, a young PG took over the game after Howard fouled out and they still won. His name - Javaris Crittenton.). If you want to read my high school reviews of Frederick, Dickey, Randolph Morris and others - read here - they all played that night back in January 2004.

Back to Dickey. To me, the talent was never in question. When a guy like that has the footwork like he had and the jumpshot like he had, and the height, there was so much to work with. Yes, he was a black-hole early - go to him in the post and the ball would never come back. Defenders would collapse and a turnover or charging call were inevitable. But in my mind, he's probably the best post player we've had since Tommy Hammonds. What was ALWAYS in question for Ra'Sean was the mental side of the game. The motivation. I don't want to say heart because that wasn't it. It was more about the focus and drive.

Dickey is redshirting this season after some academic issues and now some lingering knee issues from his childhood. I still contend that Ra'Sean Dickey has more basketball potential than anyone who had come through GT at that position in a LONG time. Unfortunately that potential has not been realized. Ra'Sean will become the last remaining person in his recruiting class next season. It will be his last hurrah and personally, I expect big things from him. A 5th year guy with that kind of talent and the other players returning could be something special. He's been through a lot physically, emotionally and he has matured. It's his time.

So there it is - a class of four dwindles to three with a transfer - then two more play out their eligibility this season - and the last guy will wait another season. I don't know how to characterize how I feel about what this class has accomplished. Honestly, I can't help but think it's a success from the perspective of how they represented GT, but less than a success in terms of on-the-court results. When Jarrett Jack went pro and Austin Jackets never showed up, they took it on the chin with Zam trying to run the point. It didn't work and we had a losing record. In comes Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young and we are back in the dance again. Both those guys were one-and-done and the early hints were that we were back in the soup again.

I so much want to see this group put their stamp on things on the court. Lucky for us the final chapters have not been written.

Coach Hewitt has not had a great track record with bringing in foreign players. The obvious success story is Luke Schenscher, but if it hadn't been for the 8/5 rule, he never would have been on campus (it would have been Emeka Okafor). Aside from Luke, you have mostly busts. Jim Nystrum plays sparingly one season, drops out and heads back to play Euro ball and support a family. Paco Diaw comes in from Senegal, plays sparingly and then transfers to Lee University. Now fellow Senegal native Mouhammad Faye is also MIA. The "International Man of Mystery" was tabbed as the next big thing with his 25 foot wingspan, 42 foot jumper, gazelle like strides and Curly Neal like ball-handling ability. Unfortunately he proved to be a long, long, physically weaker guy who never saw a jumpshot he didn't like, and played spotty defense. Now he's taken a leave of absense from the team, although Coach Hewitt has left the door open for his return if he wants.

So is there a story here about to hit-miss ratio of foreign recruits? I don't know, but thought it was interesting.

There are times that "Motion Offense" is an oxymoron for this team. Watching one guy dribble around trying to fight traps and overplaying forwards beyond the arc, while our 2-guards, wings and fowards stand around like statues is a frustrating experience. It's gotten better for sure, but there are times when you just have to ask what the heck kind of offense we run.

With that in mind, I thought I would remind you about a post I did back in March of this year on the Motion Offense. In some funny ways, the motion offense in hoops seems a little like the triple option that Paul Johnson will be installing. There are not "set" plays. Plays are determined during live action based on the defenders actions. Maybe a stretch, but interesting none-the-less.

There are schools like Memphis that run the Motion Offense in a very impressive fashion, so you know it can work. Is it the players? Is it the coaching? Is it the tweaks that make the difference? I don't know.