As the 2008-09 men’s basketball season began, there was talk around campus that this would be a difficult year for the Jackets. That said, few people—if any—could have predicted that the season would turn out the way it has.
Eight of Tech’s ten conference games to this point have been decided by seven points or fewer; aside from losses to ACC powers Duke and Clemson, the Jackets have been competitive in every game in their conference schedule so far. They have led late in the second half seven times and have gone to overtime three times—and somehow, the result has been a 1-9 mark to date in ACC play, dropping the team to 10-13.
Coaches and players alike have offered reasons for the team’s problems, but everyone seems surprised by the seemingly endless slide.
“We know we could have won those other games. [In] a lot of those games…at the end, we missed some free throws or turned it over,” freshman guard Iman Shumpert said after the Jan. 31st win over Wake Forest in reference to Tech’s 0-6 ACC record before the game.
Both of those have factored heavily into the team’s struggles. Turnovers have been the biggest killer, as the Jackets rank last in the ACC with 17.4 turnovers per game and have committed as many as 28 in a single contest. Free throw shooting has also been a problem; while Tech has improved of late, most recently shooting 85.0 percent from the line against Virginia Tech, the team’s lowly season average of 61.2 percent has cost them in the past, with players missing free throws that could potentially have secured slim leads.
“I’m not sure I’ve been around a team that plays so hard defensively and has nothing to show for it. Usually, when you’re putting up these types of numbers defensively, you’re among the best in terms of winning percentage,” Head Coach Paul Hewitt said after Sunday’s one-point loss to Maryland.
Tech was expected to struggle after the revelation that it would be without two key seniors. Guard/forward D’Andre Bell, the team’s top defender, was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a congenital condition that would force him to miss the entire season. Guard Lewis Clinch was ruled academically ineligible for the fall; however, he got his grades in order and was reinstated to the team before the ACC schedule began.
Even with the roster issues, Tech has been in position to win all too many times, only to see things crumble at the end. The Jackets have claimed victory only once, over Wake Forest, but they made that one win count: Shumpert’s last-second jumper over Jeff Teague gave senior Alade Aminu a win over his brother, gave Tech a victory over the then-No. 6 team in the nation, and gave the fans—and, really, the players themselves—a rare reason to celebrate in an otherwise difficult season.
The Jackets did everything right in that game; they kept turnovers down, shot free throws well, and established their inside game. Of course, they did all those things against Virginia Tech and never managed to hold a single lead in the game.
Many Tech fans are already looking ahead to next season, when a top-notch recruiting class is expected to propel the Jackets back to ACC prominence. Aside from the Wake win, the news that South Atlanta forward Derrick Favors had committed to Tech may have been the most exciting moment of the season. While the incoming class—plus the return of Bell, who has been cleared to play next season—certainly is exciting, the fact that it has overshadowed Tech’s performance is never a good sign for any team.
Still, it is too early to write off the Jackets this year. While an NCAA tournament bid seems far-fetched, the ACC tournament will be played in Atlanta this year, offering Tech home-field advantage. If the Jackets can keep its turnover count down and establish their inside game with Lawal, Aminu, and Peacock, they have enough firepower to be a contender in the tournament—or at least enough to put a good scare into one of the ACC’s top teams.