Basketball freshmen playing well to power talented squad

Last season, the Tech men’s basketball team suffered through one of their worst seasons in recent history. They went 12-19 overall and managed to win just two games in the ACC while losing 14 conference games.

Head Coach Paul Hewitt worked last season on the court coaching the 2008-2009 squad through a difficult season. However, some of his best work last season was off of the court. Following the 2008 recruiting season, in which Tech had just one recruit, now-sophomore guard Iman Shumpert, Hewitt assembled one of the nation’s highest-rated recruiting classes from both inside and outside the state of Georgia.

So far, Hewitt’s work on the recruiting trail last season has paid off. Tech has already won more ACC games than last season (three) and is ranked No. 22 in the nation.

When talking about Georgia Tech freshmen this season, it is impossible not to mention forward Derrick Favors. Favors was Tech’s most prized recruit this season, and was rated the No. 1 overall prospect in the nation by scout.com. The 6-foot-10 freshman posted stellar numbers in high school and used his skills on the post to lead South Atlanta High School to a state title, and he was expected to thrive in the college game from day one.

At Tech, Favors has not exactly dominated, but he has been successful. He is averaging 11.7 points per game, which ranks him second among ACC freshmen. Favors also averages nine rebounds per game and two blocks.

Favors has started every game this season for the Jackets, but he has struggled with his consistency. Favors has shown glimpses of his great abilities with his numerous alley-oop dunks and strong rebounding ability, but he has had trouble staying on the court at times, being pulled back to the bench during some of Tech’s closer games.

Favors is averaging just over 26 minutes played per game. This is partly because of turnovers and foul trouble, but the strong play of junior forward Gani Lawal and senior forward Zach Peacock has caused Hewitt to favor his more experienced hands in many spots.

Favors struggled this season in the three games the team played between Jan. 2-9. In Tech’s game against Charlotte, Favors played 23 minutes and scored a career-low six points. Against Georgia, Favors played just 21 minutes and had five turnovers.

His performance against Duke was overshadowed by Tech’s win over the Blue Devils, but he had only seven points and had four turnovers.

Lately, however, Favors has been a force for the Jackets on the post. In his past two games (Clemson and at Florida State), Favors has scored a total of 27 points and grabbed 24 rebounds. He also added five blocks and only two turnovers in those games.

Freshman point guard Mfon Udofia has also been a big contributor in his first year. Even as a freshman, Udofia has shared point guard duties with Shumpert for the Jackets thanks in large part to his athleticism and scoring ability. Udofia possess the rare ability to both drive and shoot at a high percentage. He averages 9.6 points per game and is shooting 31 percent from the three-point line.

Udofia has been mostly a consistent scoring threat. For instance, he has scored over 15 points four times this season and like Favors, he has had great performances on occasion. Against Siena on Dec. 2, Udofia posted a season-high 26 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

Like most guards, Udofia’s ball-handling and distribution skills will likely improve the more minutes he plays.

A third key contributor for Tech this season has been freshman small forward Brian Oliver.Despite being Tech’s lowest-rated recruit in the offseason, Oliver has played well and has emerged as Tech’s best outside threat.

At 6-foot-6, Oliver is of ideal size for a wing forward and uses that size to shoot over defenders at a very high percentage; so far this season he is shooting 39 percent from three-point range.

Like most freshmen, Oliver has gotten better with every game he has played so far this season. On Sunday, Oliver entered the game off the bench with Tech down 10-2 and hit three straight treys to give Tech the lead. In all, he scored 20 points and made six three-pointers.

Another prominent freshman for Tech is shooting guard Glen Rice Jr. The 6-foot-5 native of Marietta, Ga. is the son of former NBA great Glen Rice Sr.

The younger Rice has shown that he has great potential with his ability to drive to the rim. Because of his good size, Rice also gives Hewitt the option to play him at either wing position as necessary. That versatility has allowed Rice to make an impact on both ends of the floor.

Rice showcased his range of talents against Clemson on January 19. In that game, Rice scored nine points but also had four rebounds, four assists and two blocks off the bench. One assist occurred when Rice lobbed the ball to Favors for a reverse alley-oop dunk.

Hewitt received two more high profile commitments last season from power forward Kammeon Holsey and canter Daniel Miller. However, neither has played this season. Holsey suffered an ACL tear on Aug. 1 and will miss the entire season, and Miller elected to be redshirted.

Both likely would have had a tough time finding quality minutes this season behind Lawal, Favors, Peacock and perhaps redshirt senior center Brad Sheehan on the frontcourt depth chart.

Tech will need all of its freshmen to keep improving this season if they want a shot to win the ACC and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.