- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

Georgia Tech is plenty aware of how injuries and inconsistency can deflate a team with grand preseason expectations.

What it doesn’t know - or perhaps what it doesn’t want to think about - is how those things will affect the Yellow Jackets’ NCAA tournament chances.

“I don’t know. I really don’t,” Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. “I feel like we have an opportunity Friday to make a stronger case for ourselves. Until all the teams have played and all the resumes are finished, I try not to get into what they’re thinking.”

For the sake of maintaining sanity, that’s probably a wise move.

Fifth-seeded Georgia Tech (17-10) probably will make the NCAA field regardless of whether it beats Virginia Tech in tomorrow’s ACC tournament quarterfinal at MCI Center. The Yellow Jackets have an RPI of 37, an 8-8 conference record, a victory over Wake Forest and the country’s 18th-toughest schedule - all factors that bode well in a season when some decidedly unimpressive teams probably will receive at-large invitations to the NCAA tournament.

Yet the mere mention of Georgia Tech as a possible bubble team is surprising. The Yellow Jackets brought back four starters from a team that reached the national title game last spring in the school’s first Final Four appearance in 14 years. A run at the conference title - even in an extremely deep league - didn’t seem an absurd notion.

Instead, the Jackets have struggled to find consistency and haven’t won consecutive games since early January. Tech has alternated losses with wins in its last 12 games, and though it played Duke and Wake Forest tough during that stretch, it also struggled to dispatch the likes of Clemson and Florida State.

“It’s been kind of up and down,” said junior point guard Jarrett Jack, who leads the team in scoring (15.9) and assists (4.6). “It’s tough to get some momentum when you can’t string together some wins.”

Playing without one of the team’s best players for more than a month didn’t help matters. B.J. Elder, a second-team All-ACC selection last year, suffered a strained left hamstring early in Tech’s New Year’s Day loss at Kansas. The Yellow Jackets stumbled through a 4-6 stretch before Elder returned Feb. 8 against Clemson.

It couldn’t have come soon enough. The senior made an impact in the regular season’s final month, scoring 22 points, including two free throws with less than a second left, in Tech’s 76-75 victory at Florida State on Feb. 20. He added another 22 in a near upset at Wake Forest on March 2.

“He’s a guy that I think really stabilizes them and gives them a guy who has a clear understanding of what has to happen in order for them to be successful,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “In our game in Tallahassee, he just made big shots. Every time they needed to keep us at bay, he was the guy who stepped up and showed he is the leader of that team.”

The 6-foot-4, 218-pound guard is one of the conference’s most dangerous perimeter players, and his absence allowed foes to clamp down on center Luke Schenscher without worrying about a 3-point barrage. The Aussie averaged 9.6 points while Elder was out but has improved to 11.9 since the guard’s return.

Plus, Tech’s 3-point threat has re-emerged as a more efficient weapon.

“Our 3-point shooting is better not just because of B.J. but because of the spacing,” Hewitt said. “It’s been a chance to get Luke more post-ups, and Luke’s an outstanding passer. We all know the inside-out 3 is the best 3-point shot to take in the game. Instead of having 3-point shots coming from passes along the perimeter, now your 3-point shots are coming from passes from out of the paint back out to the line, and that makes you a more accurate 3-point shooting team.”

Though Elder has re-opened things for the uptempo Jackets, his return hasn’t been a complete panacea. But with forward Jeremis Smith (dislocated kneecap) also returning in the last month, Tech is finally enjoying a full rotation.

That depth should help in the ACC tournament, where the Yellow Jackets could play three games in as many days. To do so, they’ll first have to defeat Virginia Tech, a fitting opening opponent considering the Hokies dealt Georgia Tech arguably its worst loss this season, a 70-69 defeat Jan. 22 in Atlanta. A chance at payback, plus the opportunity to remove any doubt about their NCAA credentials, should be a significant spark for the Jackets.

“A lot of guys probably had a bitter taste after that game,” Jack said. “It came down to the wire, and it was at home. It was tough for us. The revenge factor may play a big part in the game [tomorrow].”

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