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Georgia Tech to lean on big front line
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Georgia Tech vs. Winston-Salem State

When: 8:30 tonight

Where: Alexander Memorial Coliseum, Atlanta

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ATLANTA — Paul Hewitt joked last month that an experienced point guard would mean “a little less graying” in his hair.

The Georgia Tech coach had no way of knowing other problems would complicate his plans for the Yellow Jackets’ season, which opens tonight against Winston-Salem State.

First, Hewitt learned about a week after the start of practice that senior captain D’Andre Bell will have season-ending surgery to correct a spinal condition. Bell, the team’s top perimeter defender, started 22 games last season.

Lewis Clinch, another senior guard, has been lost at least for a few games after he was declared academically ineligible for the fall semester. Clinch started 14 of 32 games last season and averaged 9.0 points.

“We just treat it like an injury,” Hewitt said of the loss of Clinch. “If everything goes well, he’ll be back after first six games and there’s plenty of season left. We really can’t dwell on it right now. Obviously, we wish Lewis were out there playing. He’s not, so we’ve got to move on.”

Suddenly, Georgia Tech is facing a potential critical shortage of backcourt players as it attempts to improve on last season’s 15-17 record.

Bell hopes to return next season. Clinch hopes to return in January. For now, Hewitt has to make some adjustments as he looks for players to join his returning starter at point guard, sophomore Moe Miller.

“We’re probably not pressing as much, not running as much, but trying to become a little more efficient in terms of executing our half-court offense and certainly being more solid in the half-court defense,” Hewitt said this week.

Miller, the fourth starting point guard in four seasons for Hewitt, enjoyed a strong finish to his freshman season, averaging 13.4 points and 3.8 assists in the last eight games.

“He’s a very talented basketball player, but I think the physical demands of Division I college basketball may have caught him by surprise last season,” Hewitt said. “By the middle of the year and toward the end of the year, I think he kind of figured it out and finished up great.”

Freshman walk-on guard Nick Foreman played 19 minutes and scored eight points in the Yellow Jackets’ 85-54 exhibition win against Le Moyne last Friday. Hewitt said Foreman, who had two 3-pointers in the win, could continue to play.

Freshman Iman Shumpert joined Miller in the starting backcourt against Le Moyne. Hewitt’s original plan was to have Shumpert play behind Miller at point guard.

Sophomore Lance Storrs, who played an average of seven minutes per game last season, also must fill a bigger role.

Meanwhile, Hewitt has turned to a big lineup, with 6-foot-8 junior Zack Peacock moving to fill the small forward spot projected for Bell.

“I won’t be able to do the things D’Andre Bell did, but I’m pretty sure I can get in there and help,” said Peacock, who played inside his first two seasons.

Peacock said he’s not the only player who has to help make up for the loss of Bell.

“As a team it’s like everyone took it upon themselves,” Peacock said. “We’re going to dedicate the season to D’Andre, in the sense he won’t be there with us. We just took it upon ourselves to work harder.”

Hewitt says he expects his frontcourt to take the scoring lead. Forward Gani Lawal led the way in the exhibition game with 30 points and 10 rebounds. Senior center Alade Aminu also had a double-double with 17 points and 12 boards, and Peacock came close with nine points and 13 rebounds.

“The strength of this team are the big guys, and our big guys are doing a nice job,” Hewitt said. “I think we have nice depth there, especially when Bassirou (Dieng) comes back from his injury.”

Dieng, a senior, missed the exhibition game with an elbow injury.

Hewitt considered having Storrs start at small forward before turning to Peacock.

“This has allowed him to step out and play more on the perimeter,” said Hewitt of Peacock. “He’s become a very nice perimeter defender.”

Can the Yellow Jackets, recently picked eighth in the Atlantic Coast Conference by ACC media, overcome the setbacks?

“It’s a legitimate concern, but what are you going to do?” Hewitt asked. “You’re not going to get any bonus points when you step out on the court. You’ve got to go play. We’ll change our style of play a little bit, but if you ask me if we’re talented enough to overcome it, yeah, we’re definitely talented enough to overcome it.”

Hewitt’s biggest concern before the start of practice was finding a replacement for Jeremis Smith as the team’s rebounding leader. Now, with the 240-pound Peacock moving to small forward, the Yellow Jackets will open with a bigger lineup.

“Actually, I think it makes us a better rebounding team,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt said Miller and Peacock “were our two best all-around players” at the end of last season.

Now the two have to continue that momentum.

“There’s stuff you have to learn on your own and you learn through experience,” Miller said. “Toward the end of last year I started to master it and get it down, just being more of a floor leader.

“Knowing that now, I should have a more productive year.”   

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