ATLANTA - After his team gave up 76 points per game, including 77.6 points in ACC contests, last season, defense was already a concern for Georgia Tech basketball coach Paul Hewitt as his team began preseason practice less than two weeks ago.
It became an even bigger issue when news of a season-ending - and perhaps career-ending - injury to defensive specialist D'Andre Bell broke late last week.
The subject was also very much on his mind when he met with the Atlantic Coast Conference's media during the annual Operation Basketball event Sunday at the Marriott Marquis.
"There's got to be an evolution of who's going to be a leader - who's going to step up and fill that void," Hewitt said specifically about dealing with the loss of Bell, who was not only considered one of the Yellow Jackets' best defensive players, but also a team captain. "You just don't tag somebody as captain and say, 'OK, you go out and do it.' My guess is, it will probably be done by committee. He was clearly, in my mind, the best example of what a student-athlete at Georgia Tech should be about."
While the emotional aspects of Bell's absence from the lineup are being dealt with, so are the tactical aspects.
With Bell - who was second on the team with 43 steals a year ago - and graduated forward Jeremis Smith - who led Tech with 45 steals and added 12 blocked shots - both gone, Hewitt said the Jackets' will sport somewhat of a different look on the defensive end this season.
"We probably won't extend the floor as much and won't press as much," Hewitt said. "But you'll also see us changing up defenses more. We'll probably play a little more zone."
More zone means Tech's low post players, who were already a focus for improvement in the land and on the boards, will face further scrutiny.
That includes former Norcross standout Gani Lawal, along with junior Zachery Peacock and senior Alade Aminu, who will be counted on to show more strength on the board to make up for the loss of Smith's team-best 7.4 rebounds per game.
"There's work to be done," Hewitt said. "Our big guys have a chance to be outstanding, but they've got to play to their potential. Paying attention to detail (is a goal). Jeremis was our best defender in the low-post area - and not just guarding his man and not making mistakes, but also being a help defender and boxing out. Jeremis was just so athletic and strong he could box out and get the ball.
"These guys, I'll just settle for boxing out, and then learn to get the ball. It's going to be a learning process for both Alade and Gani. Now, that said, they are clearly two of the most athletic front court players I've ever had, ... but it comes down to them understanding the (defensive) possession is not over until we get the ball in our hands and we get out and go."
Peacock will also be counted on to add his 6-foot-8, 240-pound frame to the task of controlling the defensive glass, and he believes he, Lawal and Aminu are ready to step up and meet Hewitt's challenge.
"I think (rebounding) was a big weakness for us last year," Peacock said of the Jackets' minus-24 overall rebounding deficit as a team last year, including minus-1 on the defensive glass. "We actually lost a couple of key games we could've won due to rebounding. ... That's what we stress every day in practice. (Hewitt) gives us goals to reach in practice every day as far as how many rebounds we get."
Hewitt's goals for his big men are not limited to the defensive end, especially with regard to Lawal, who showed potential - if not consistency - as threat in the lane as a freshman last year.
However, the coach believes the key to Lawal becoming that threat lies more with his mental approach to the game, rather than anything physical.
"I think he has to slow down. Don't play as fast," Hewitt said of Lawal. "Don't be as hurried. There's a time to explode and get to the rim and put the ball on the floor because he has one of the quickest first steps I've ever seen. But he also has to know when to gear down a little bit before you speed up again."