The junior guard led Georgia Tech in scoring through the first 10 games last season, then was suspended for violating the school’s academic honor code. All he could was watch the rest of the way, learning a valuable lesson about staying on top of his studies and not looking for shortcuts.
"Not being able to get out there and play with your teammates, the guys you work so hard with in the preseason, that really bothers you," Clinch said. "That’s a situation I never want to put myself in again."
After Clinch’s suspension, freshmen Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton stepped up to average more than 14 points apiece, leading Yellow Jackets back to the NCAA tournament. The postseason run didn’t last long — Georgia Tech was knocked off by UNLV in the first round — and the young stars didn’t hang around, either.
Young and Crittenton left for the NBA in tandem, both getting drafted in the first round. Coach Paul Hewitt must find a way to compensate for nearly 29 points a game, a huge share of the scoring load that falls on players such as Clinch and Anthony Morrow.
Clinch, who averaged 13.2 points in 14 games, is especially eager to redeem himself for messing up last season.
"Honestly, I don’t think we’re going to backtrack," he said. "If anything, we’re going forward. We’re such a cohesive team. We’ve got a strong core coming back."
There’s Morrow, a 6-foot-5 senior who averaged 16 points a game as a sophomore but struggled last season to overcome back problems. He’s fully recovered and eager to reclaim more of the offensive load.
"If that’s a role I have to take on, I definitely will take it on," Morrow said. "That’s not anything I’m going to shy away from. I feel like myself and Lewis Clinch on the wings can really score a lot of points."
Morrow gets fired up when he hears anyone say the Yellow Jackets have fallen back into a rebuilding mode.
"That’s just a lot of motivation. It’s like a chip on my shoulder. I can’t wait to get back out there and show people," he said. "People automatically go, ‘OK, they lost two guys to the NBA who were great players.’ I guess it’s human nature to say we’re going to fall back. But I don’t feel like that at all. No one on our team feels like that."
There’s reason to believe the Yellow Jackets won’t slide as far as they did in 2005-06, when they slumped to 11-17 just two seasons after playing in the NCAA championship game. Morrow and Clinch provide experience and scoring punch on the wings. Jeremis Smith and Zach Peacock, a pair of burly, 6-8 forwards, can handle themselves in the paint.
But the success of the team may come down to what happens at point guard, a position Crittenton manned so well.
One candidate is former East Hall standout and Berkmar graduate Matt Causey, an unimposing 6-0 senior who’s making the third stop on his college odyssey. He played one season at Georgetown, then transferred to North Georgia College in Dahlonega for a two-year run. He’s back on the big stage for his farewell after sitting out last season.
"The first time I saw Matt, I didn’t know who he was. I thought he may been in high school," Morrow said. "When I saw him play, I’m like, ‘Man, this kid is good.’ He really surprised me."
Causey was a big scorer at North Georgia, but he’ll be expected to take on more of a passing role at Georgia Tech.
"He’s real crafty," Morrow said. "I call him Steve Nash sometimes in pickup games. When he comes down, he knows how to change speeds, how to use his body. He’s a very smart player, a very experienced player."
The Yellow Jackets also have freshman Maurice Miller, whose shot is still a work in progress but knows how to set up others to score.
"We don’t have a point guard who’s going to score 14 points a game," Smith said. "But we do have guys who may give out 14 assists, which in turn will make up for the 14 points that Javaris scored and the 14 points that Thaddeus scored. Mo and Matt can do that. They distribute the ball really well. It’s just different roles."
Hewitt sounds as worried about losing another player to the NBA as he does trying to make up for Young and Crittenton.
Mario West, who was Georgia Tech’s defensive stopper, completed his eligibility, signed with the hometown Atlanta Hawks as a free agent and surprisingly made the opening-night roster.
"Almost all the big games we won came down to Mario West making plays on defense at the end of the game," Hewitt said. "It’s amazing how many games you lose because of defensive breakdowns here and there. Never once was he involved in one of those."
The coach is hoping that D’Andre Bell and Mouhammad Faye can fill West’s role at the defensive end.
Something else the Yellow Jackets have to make up for.