ATLANTA — When the calendar turns toward mid-February, a month-long guessing game typically ensues.
It is one with which Paul Hewitt is rather familiar.
The 12-year head coach has seen his share of late winter days when pundits start scribbling out potential national tournament brackets and naming their budding bubble busters. He has seen postseason play seven times.
But regardless their opinions of his 17-win Georgia Tech team this season, Hewitt contends his Yellow Jackets will go dancing when the NCAA tournament’s March Madiness begins.
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“If you’re into all the projections and things like that, we’re pretty safe,” Hewitt said Monday. “If we continue to play just good basketball, we’ll get into the tournament.”
In order to do that and more, the Yellow Jackets’ journey toward the NCAA tournament must begin with a win tonight and several others, he said.
“I wouldn’t say ‘Make or break,’ but it’s a very important game,” Hewitt said. “We hope to restart our momentum, and that’s why a game like (tonight’s) is very important.”
Back inside the friendly home confines of Alexander Memorial Coliseum at 9 p.m. today, the Yellow Jackets — losers of two straight at Miami and Wake Forest — host North Carolina (14-11, 3-7). After last week’s losses, Georgia Tech (17-8, 5-6 ACC) on Monday dropped out of The Associated Press top 25 for the second time this season.
In their previous meeting with North Carolina last month, the Yellow Jackets won 73-71 on the road.
While North Carolina hardly resembles the team that blew out Michigan State in last year’s national title game, Hewitt expects to see the Tar Heels return to prominence very soon.
“I still say, that’s not a team that a lot of people want to see come March,” Hewitt said. “I’m going to stick with that. I could be wrong.”
Why does he have such optimism in the Tar Heels? Because, he said, they are young and talented and are finally beginning to find an identity. Although star forward Ed Davis will be missing tonight after suffering an injury against Duke last week, Hewitt expects to see a good, competitive game.
“I’m more concerned about us guarding them because again, they’re playing a smaller, quicker, more skilled (offense) rather than trying to pound it inside, which is typically what they’ll do,” Hewitt said.
Without Davis in the game — the sophomore had 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocks in the first meeting — the Yellow Jackets hope to own the interior, while also expecting a physical game out of their backcourt.
“We should dominate the inside now,” senior forward Zachery Peacock said of Davis’ absence. “It’s going to be a pretty intense, tough game to play in.”
As Georgia Tech looks to limit the shooting of North Carolina’s guards, it may be doing so with a different lineup.
Before Monday’s practice, Hewitt said, “We’re going to look at a change (in the starting rotation).”
That change hinged on performances during the practice and likely would come at guard. Sophomore Iman Shumpert has hit a slump, scoring a combined six points with just three assists in his past two games. Freshman Mfon Udofia has not played statistically quite as strongly as the high expectations that preceded him.
“Our starting rotation has hit a speed bump, if you will,” Hewitt said. “Iman, he’s just got to get himself going. We know he’s good enough.
“He said he finds himself standing around watching (on defense), which is something he never does. That’s his game. He’s disruptive defensively, and when he’s disruptive defensively, he’s really into the game on both ends. You can’t game plan for a guy like him defensively because he’s so good off the ball and he’s so aware. And when he doesn’t have that type of activity and aggressiveness or awareness, you start wondering, ‘OK, is he tired, is he sick. What’s going on?’ Maybe he’s just tired.”
In the meantime, Hewitt said he was going to look at freshmen Glen Rice Jr. and Brian Oliver to work with the starting group in Monday’s practice. They would alternate with fellow backup, junior Maurice Miller, who scored 12 points off the bench against Wake Forest on Saturday.
“That sounds like a plan to me,” Peacock said. “We need to do whatever we can to get a win.”