Hewitt, Jackets the next big thing?

ATLANTA -- Dave Braine's office is lined with fly fishing rods to remind him of his second home, a Montana house that opens out into the wilderness near Yellowstone Park near streams full of fish just waiting to be caught.

Montana couldn't seem farther from Braine's Georgia Tech office until you realize that the patience the Yellow Jackets' athletic director developed during his fishing exploits was applied to his handling of the men's basketball program.

Braine knew he had to make a splash when he was replacing legendary coach Bobby Cremins. There was no secret that the program was fading when Cremins failed to reach the NCAAs in any of his final four seasons.

But the AD admits he was fortunate to reel in Paul Hewitt before someone in the Big East did.

"It was luck hiring Paul," said Braine, regarded as one of the most loyal athletic directors in the biz. "If it weren't for Ron Adams, a good friend of mine who was working with the Bulls, then I wouldn't have given Paul a second look. He encouraged me to look at him and after I saw him, I said, 'Wow.'"

Braine said he called Big East athletic director Mike Tranghese about Hewitt. He said Tranghese told him Hewitt was a year away from making it big after three seasons at Siena, including the 1999 MAAC tournament title. Braine is convinced Tranghese wanted to keep him for his conference.

"He's really blossomed here," Braine said.

Hewitt went 17-13 in his first year, losing to Saint Joseph's in the first round of the NCAAs. He didn't get to the postseason in Year 2, finishing under .500. In his third year, with future top five pick Chris Bosh as a freshman, he barely got to the NIT and finished with a 16-15 record.

Nonetheless, Braine gave Hewitt an extension and was rewarded immediately with last season's run to the NCAA finals.

Now Hewitt is one of the hottest names in the business, one of college basketball's rising statesmen, and on track to keep Georgia Tech at the top of the ACC as it moves toward an 11-team conference this season, 12 in 2005-06.

"I felt after the first year here that we could recruit the guys we needed," Hewitt said. "But what clinched it for me (that he could succeed at Tech) was the support from Dave Braine and (school president) Dr. Wayne Clough."

Hewitt said both Braine and Clough are good listeners and could look at the program and see progress.

"There might have been people who didn't want to talk to me on the street, but every April, he was throwing a contract in front of me," Hewitt said. "I was like, 'If you've got faith in me, then I've got faith in me.' I was frustrated at times, but I didn't feel pressure."

Braine's folksy delivery and inviting personality make it easy to understand why he wasn't going to give up on Hewitt, or on the program, so quickly. The decision to stick with Hewitt could ultimately be one of the most important ones made at this university in the last decade.

"I watched him in practice and saw how he dealt with kids and the public," said Braine, who was once at Virginia Tech and sees parallels with Hewitt and Hokies football coach Frank Beamer. "You can see things that make him a good coach, a good teacher, good recruiter. I wish I could tell you I was smart, but it's Paul."

Braine, Hewitt, the players and the administrative staff at Georgia Tech keep reminding visitors, especially those in the media, how difficult the school is academically. Hewitt isn't bashful in saying that Georgia Tech is the most challenging school in the ACC (take that, Duke!). That's a large part of what makes being a consistent power here so daunting.

"This is a very difficult place to coach because of the standards and narrow curriculum and when you get the right person, you better keep him," Braine said. "It will be a lot harder for Paul to leave now. When you show loyalty, you get loyalty in return. He's the most loyal guy I've been around."

Cremins got the Yellow Jackets to the Final Four in 1990. He had name players like Kenny Anderson, Mark Price, John Salley and Dennis Scott through his great run and also landed one-hit wonder Stephon Marbury. Braine said if it weren't for Cremins' historical success, Hewitt might not have had a chance to build the program back up.

But Braine's more reflective and analytical approach to Hewitt paid off as the development of players like guard B.J. Elder and center Luke Schenscher (Georgia Tech and Boise State were the finalists) led the Yellow Jackets to the title game. Hewitt's handling of the addition of mid-semester Arizona transfer Will Bynum, where he spoke with all of the team's perimeter players about adding Bynum to the mix, was critical to the eventual NCAA run.

"Paul is the catalyst and he's the one who gives you the feeling that it can be done here," Braine said. "Timing is everything. There's no easy answer to doing this. It was just a gut feeling. Paul wasn't our first choice. We looked at a lot of other people but once we zeroed in on him, we knew he was the right fit for us. He's as good a fit for Georgia Tech as anybody."

"When I was at Arizona, they always had national championship on the board," Bynum said. "When I got here, it was just making the tournament. But when I started playing, the standards started to change as we won bigger games."

Hewitt exuded that confidence and instilled it in his players. Senior guard Is'mail Muhammad said it wasn't easy building the Yellow Jackets into a title contender, but as the team meshed, Hewitt was even more confident and comfortable. And then the expectations changed.

"We're not afraid to say it now," Muhammad said. "We're trying to win the ACC and the national title."

Andy Katz's 3-pointer from Georgia Tech

1. Theodis Tarver is ready for a breakout season: The 6-9 junior didn't reach his full potential last season because of a preseason knee injury, but he is apparently the hit of preseason workouts this season. In one scrimmage, Tarver came from the weak side, across the baseline, to block a shot that had the players and staff comparing it to Syracuse's Hakim Warrick's block of Michael Lee's shot in the final seconds of the 2003 national title game.

"He already had the tools but now he has the work ethic," Georgia Tech assistant Cliff Warren said.

Tarver could give the Yellow Jackets the necessary inside lift if Schenscher gets double-teamed in the post. The more Tarver becomes a factor, the more likely the Yellow Jackets will have balance. Schenscher, according to Hewitt, is getting involved in more plays every game. That's fine as long as Tarver is around to help offset any added attention.

2. Expect Hewitt to have a voice for years to come on key college basketball issues: Hewitt isn't going to pull a John Thompson and walk off the court over an issue, but he will be heard. He's in favor of Myles Brand's endorsed academic reform package but he wants the NCAA membership to make a few changes. He doesn't see how college basketball can be judged fairly given the season stretches across both semesters.

"The intentions are right but the academic reforms don't address that we're a two-semester sport," Hewitt said. "Unless we change that, this will force coaches to recruit kids from elite high schools and find the most prepared students. It's not wrong but every school has a different mission."

Moving college basketball to start in mid-December has been discussed before but rarely gets any solid movement. But that won't stop Hewitt from talking out about the progress reports that make it tougher for two-semester players to stay eligible or even recruited to college.

"I like the idea of having a perspective on this after three years of being a high school coach, being in admissions and seeing this from a lot of different angles," Hewitt said. "I have a perspective that could help."

3. The Yellow Jackets will sprinkle in a few freshmen: The players see only a few freshmen cracking the eight- to nine-man rotation, but there should be a few minutes for freshman forward Jeremis Smith, guard Anthony Morrow and forward Ra'Sean Dickey. These were the three players who were discussed the most by veterans Bynum, B.J. Elder, Jarrett Jack and Muhammad.

"We'll need these young guys to step in and help us," Elder said, but Bynum noted that "the freshmen are coming in knowing that they've got to learn as much as they can before they can play."

The beauty of this team is that the freshmen don't have to play major minutes, unlike when Elder, Muhammad, Anthony McHenry and, to some extent, Schenscher, arrived.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.