ATLANTA — Georgia Tech is counting on a dramatic turnaround this season, thanks to a talented freshman class led by Derrick Favors.
The 6-foot-10 Favors is a lock to start for coach Paul Hewitt and could be joined by another freshman, point guard Mfon Udofia.
Georgia Tech finished at 12-19 last season, with a last-place 2-14 ACC record. Still, Hewitt hinted a worst-to-first turnaround is within the team’s reach.
“I think these guys know that if everything goes right, we have a chance to be as good as anyone in the ACC, and if you are as good as anyone in the ACC, then you can compete for anything that comes after that,” Hewitt said.
Thanks to two first-place votes at this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference’s Operation Basketball preseason event, Georgia Tech was picked fourth, behind Duke and North Carolina, which tied for first, and Clemson. Favors was the pick of 40 of 48 voters for ACC rookie of the year.
The 6-foot-10 Favors, from South Atlanta High, was selected as the nation’s top high school player by Parade magazine and was rated as the nation’s top prospect by some recruiting services.
Favors has a 9-foot wingspan and averaged five blocks, 13.1 rebounds and 28.1 points on a Class AAA state championship team last year.
“I wish I could have the ability he has and the length he has,” teammate Zach Peacock said. “It’s just amazing to watch him.”
The freshman class also includes 6-foot-11 center Daniel Miller, who has made an impact with his rebounding in the first two weeks of practice, and guard Glen Rice Jr.
Georgia Tech has not finished above .500 in the ACC in any season since losing in the 2004 national championship game, the high mark of Hewitt’s nine seasons in Atlanta. Hewitt is only 60-84 in ACC games and 154-131 overall at Georgia Tech.
Hewitt continues to defend last year’s team.
“I thought that team performed extremely well,” he said. “Under the conditions, I thought we played very hard. We were there in every game. At the end of the games, we just didn’t take care of the ball as much as we would have liked, and we didn’t make free throws.”
No matter how the 2008-09 season is judged, Hewitt and Georgia Tech fans are eager to see if Favors and the other freshmen can lead this team’s resurgence.
Hewitt, who has shielded the freshmen from interviews, said Favors is quiet but productive in practice.
“He plays hard,” he said. “He doesn’t say much on the court. He plays through fouls, plays through contact, and continues to get to the next play.”
Hewitt said Udofia “is showing some great leadership and athleticism.”
Hewitt had Udofia paired with senior guard D’Andre Bell in the team’s first intrasquad scrimmage. Bell missed last season after he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a congenital condition.
Guard Iman Shumpert joins forwards Gani Lawal and Peacock as returning starters. Bell started two years ago and was the team’s top perimeter defender.
Udofia, Shumpert and junior Moe Miller are the top contenders to start at point guard.
Miller has been cleared to practice after suffering a concussion in an offseason car accident. Hewitt was concerned because Miller suffered two concussions last season.
The 6-foot-8 Peacock is a natural power forward who now says he was uncomfortable when trying to play small forward last season, when he averaged 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds while starting every game.
“I’d like to be done with that,” Peacock said. “It was always my dream to play out there on the wing. It’s a lot tougher than it looks.”
Lawal (6-9, 234) returned for his junior season after considering leaving school for the NBA. He averaged 15.1 points and 9.5 rebounds last season.
Lawal’s return and the addition of Favors makes the frontcourt a strength.
“With Derrick and me and Gani, between the three of us and maybe Daniel, it’ll be a great help getting a chance to catch your breath,” Peacock said.
Peacock says he is motivated by the last-place finish in the ACC last season.
“We’re trying to go out with a bang,” he said.