You knew if Maryland was in a game at the end, Juan Dixon was going to find a way to get it done. He did it against us so I know (laughter). He did it in the National Championship game and he and Lonnie Baxter were going to figure out a way to help their team win. The one thing you like about our league is even though it's young, coming in, talent-wise there is a lot of potential there. As I said before, today you are judged on only what you do in March. Instead of judging you on the whole body of work, people just get down to March and say, despite the hype, you didn't get it done so you are not a good team. I like the fact that we are a young talented league. If guys are young, they might as well be talented. If you are young and talented and you get some games under your belt, 25-30 games, come March, who knows what is going to happen.
Do you feel you have experience some teams don't with sophomores coming back?
Actually I don't because I feel like in Marvin Lewis, we only have one guy who's been to the NCAA Tournament and is proven. Marvin and Robert [Brooks]. Marvin has started pretty much every game for three years. We have three sophomores who I think have shown a great deal of potential, Ed [Nelson] Isma'il [Muhammad] and B.J. [Elder], they were there the whole year. Luke [Schenscher] missed twelve games to injury last year and he has his ups and downs. Anthony McHenry, who I think is extremely talented, had his ups and downs. Then you have four freshmen. So, as I said earlier, I would much rather have a senior point guard or a fifth year guy who has been around for a while who can help these young guys understand that hey, you might think you are good and you might win an isolated game here or there, but in order to go to the tournament, you have got to put together six, eight, nine weeks of solid basketball in practice and out of practice. I think if you have experienced people who have been through it, they know what it takes. For example, a Chris Duhon. He played significant minutes in a National Championship run so he knows and he can turn to their freshman [Sean] Dockery and say, hey, that's not good enough. When you go on the road against so and so, you are going to have to do be able to do this and keep your concentration and keep your poise. I think we some talented guys but they have yet to demonstrate that they know what it takes in order to have a successful extended run to get to the tournament.
You have players that were a part of some success at the end of last season…
Yea, but we didn't get to the tournament. Someone asked me before, what was your "better coaching job" the first year or the second year [at Georgia Tech]. Well, the first year because we got to the tournament. We got to the NCAAs. We had a bunch of guys that knew what it took and they got it done. We were 0-7 at one point last year too and we lost the most important piece of that late run in Tony Akins and the second most important piece, Clarence Moore, is also gone. I am not trying to down play our team, I am just trying to be realistic. Are we talented? Yes, I think we are talented. Physically, we are very talented. Now mentally toughness and understanding the game and knowing what it takes? No, I think if you polled our team, they'll tell you, we have a long way to go in that area. If you had seen some of our practices. You'd see three or four spectacular plays followed by our manager having to get the ball out of the stands (laughter). Trust me, and you ask Marvin and Robert when they are down here. There are days like that. And we had a day like yesterday, when you walked out of there thinking ‘wow, we have a chance.' Then the day before, Ed Nelson's high school coach at the end of practice tapped me on the shoulder and told me ‘I'm glad you are coaching them and not me.' (laughter) It's like that when you have a young team.
Were you one win away from the NCAA last year?
No, we were 15-16. 16-15 wouldn't have done it. It was a great run, but the fact of the matter is, the top two pieces in that run are gone. Tony Akins and people forget about Clarence Moore, but he would have been a 22 year old fourth year guy who had gone through a broken foot and come back who at the end of the year, in my opinion, was a top ten player in the league. In the ACC Tournament, he had game where if he would have played at that level this year, he would have been one of the top ten player's in the league coming back. But he chose not to play anymore. He's still in school, but he doesn't want to play basketball anymore.
Does the youth, and I asked this of Coach K and he says it's "exciting," put a premium on you guys, the coaching staffs?
I think it does.
Where as most years, you have older players that can help with the young guys. How does that affect how you go about it?
You run the danger of overcoaching them because you really have to think every little situation through. Whereas if you had a senior in there, you know he going to be [a big help]. Like Tony [Akins] last year, he did a tremendous job with BJ and Isma'il teaching them and getting them to understand ball movement and spacing and I could see him on the side and in practice grab them and say "hey, you have to go here or you have to go there." Or, when we had Sean Fein, with Marvin Lewis, taught him ‘hey, you stay with me after practice and get some extra shots.' Our practices never ended that first year, without Marvin and Sean being the last two on the floor getting some shots in. We don't have that guy this year. Marvin is going to try to be it. But Marvin is still working and his game is still evolving. He's become a little better scorer off the dribble, but he doesn't have the whole thing. Not that you ever do in college. You know what I mean? Tony, last year, was unbelievable. Unbelievable with what he did with those guys.
Can a freshman assume a leadership role successfully?
Yea, they can. Not immediately because they have a lot to learn also. Freshmen are learning what you want defensively, what you want offensively. Freshmen are going to learn how you want to travel when you go out on a road trip. How you want to conduct yourself in front of the media. That's why I don't allow freshmen to talk [to the media] until after the first game, because, in my opinion, they've got nothing to say. They don't know anything about what they are getting into so what's the point of talking. At least give them a chance to learn and observe the other guys how we do things.
Which one of your guys could do that?
Jarrett [Jack]. No question Jarrett could be. He's the most vocal, I think he's the most outgoing of those guys. But, you know, Jarrett, if you saw him last week in the intrasquad game, he got turned every which way but loose by one of our walkons. (laughter) You know you say to yourself, ‘you recruited him? What?' (laughter) But I tell you the one thing I like about Jarrett is he bounced back from that. I was on him pretty hard about how poorly he played. He came back and had the three best practices of the year since that scrimmage. So that gives me a lot of optimism of hey, here's a guy that can take coaching, can take criticism. You show him on film, "Here is where David Nelson ran his team so efficiently. Here is where you over dribbled the ball." Then in the next three days of practice, he wasn't a different player, but you could certainly see a lot more thought going into what he was doing.
Do you know Leonard Hamilton well and what do you think he'll bring as the coach at Florida State?
I wish he wasn't at Florida State, that's how well I know him. (laughter) No, he is an excellent coach. We all know what he can do building a program, you look at Oklahoma State and Miami. Both of those programs had little or no basketball tradition when he took over and by the end, they were one of the better teams in their conference. That's all you need to know about what he's capable of doing.
How do you think his teams will be?
They are going to be great defensively. And before every game, you are going to think he's got the Sisters of the Poor in Florida State uniforms and after they get done just dismantling you defensively and you shoot 38% from the floor, then you are going to say ok, they are a little better than he was saying. Excellent defensive coach and like I said, he understands and he knows how to build a program.
Do you think he can take Florida State up to that consistent level?
He's done at two other places, I wouldn't doubt that he could do it a Florida State.
We talked about the youth, but everybody is young. Ten years ago, if you were as young, you might be in trouble. Coach K calls it an exciting time, to have the youth. Is it a good thing or bad thing to have so many young guys?
(laughing) I don't want to disagree with the dean of the league now. (laughter) But he comes from a different perspective. You know what is exciting for me is that the first time since I have been at Tech, I think we have more depth. That is exciting. But also for the first time since I have been at Tech, I am looking at a point guard that has no idea what he's about to get into whether it's Tony McHenry or Jarrett Jack. Having Tony Akins out there with two years of experience when I got there, that was a heck of security blanket. He knew how to run a team. Nothing can make a team look more poorly coached than a point guard who has no idea what is going on (laughing). I am exciting about the depth and the fact that if we have an injury, we are probably more equipped to handle that. Last year when Luke goes down, we go 4-8 when he's gone and 8-4 when he comes back. And two of those losses were to Duke and Maryland. That's why I am excited about.
On the ACC race
Maryland is there and they play hard. Duke is always Duke. They have the players and they have a great coach. NC State, they have a great coach and they play hard Their style of play is going to help them win. The other teams? To be honest, I think they have to play hard. Because everyone has talent and because everyone is young, as long as you play hard and everybody works together and communicates, you don't know who is going to win.
How do you adjust from having a guy like Tony Akins and now you have a Jarrett Jack, a senior leader to a true freshman?
Well, it becomes a collective effort to help him [Jack] mature and him to understand what he is going to have to do. With Tony, he was the floor general. We didn't have to call the plays or set the defense, he knew what to do. Jarrett is not going to know and those bumps and bruises and those times when he is struggling, we are going to have to be there for him. We have to say, you are going to be ok and things like that.
What is your outlook on this team within the conference?
The conference is wide open, from our prospective, we have to build on the confidence we built last year at the end of the season. That let us know that we can play with anybody. If we play Coach Hewitt's style and we play hard every single night, we'll be fine.
How have you worked in the offseason?
I have worked hard because to be a leader, you have to live by example for other people. One of those things is getting stronger. I look to do a lot of things this year.
Coach Hewitt said he thought you guys had the physical ability, but the mental ability was were you had to work. How do you address the mental aspect with the young guys because you went through the games last year and have the experience?
I have to communicate. I have to let everybody know that if we are in practice, I have to be the one to say, let's pick it up, let's get things together. But not only that, we have to build confidence as a team. We can play with anybody. That's from Jarrett, Chris [Bosh] to me and Robert Brooks. If we understand that, we'll be fine. Coach has a big emphasis on attention to details and that is one of the things we are working on now. Those small details, I have to express to the guys before Coach Hewitt gets to it because if I say, it comes out a lot nicer than when Coach Hewitt does.
Aside from you and Robert Brooks, who is going to step up for Georgia Tech this year?
You can look for Isma'il Muhammad to be a big leader. He's our fire. Defensively, he's going to excel in the press. He'll play a big role.