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October 29, 2009

Jackets' Bell just glad to be playing ball

Much of the preseason hype labeling Georgia Tech as one of the nation's most improved teams focuses on the arrival of a heralded recruiting class. Sometimes the conversation turns to the return of four starters.

But one of the biggest reasons for optimism involves the comeback of a player who didn't participate in a game last season.

Senior swingman D'Andre Bell feared his career was over last season after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal cord that can cause pain, numbness or weakness in the legs, feet and buttocks. He instead will be in the starting lineup Nov. 14 when the Yellow Jackets open their season against Florida A&M.

"All I can do is play as hard as I can and make the most of it," Bell said. "I'm going to do my best to seize every single opportunity, period."

Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt has called Bell's return as important as any addition the program has made in the past year. That represents high praise from a coach who signed the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class and No. 3 overall prospect (6-10 forward Derrick Favors) during that period.

Bell had averaged 6.6 points per game two years ago while emerging as one of the Yellow Jackets' top defenders. His bright future helped Bell overlook a troubling detail. As far back as his freshman season, Bell had experienced occasional tingling in his arms and legs.

Because he prides himself on his toughness, Bell never used that nagging condition as an excuse to keep him off the floor. After a preseason incident, Bell couldn't ignore the situation any longer.

Bell and a teammate collided while chasing a loose ball during a workout. Bell suddenly realized he couldn't feel his arms, and he had no idea what was wrong.

That's when he finally learned what had been bothering him all this time.

"It was a gift and a curse in a sense," Bell said. "It was like, 'I know I'm not crazy.' I'm glad we found it before anything worse could have happened."

At first, it seemed like more of a curse than a gift. This was potentially a career-ending situation.

"We thought it was over," Hewitt acknowledged.

It wasn't.

When Bell underwent surgery Dec. 18 in his hometown of Los Angeles, he received an encouraging prognosis from Dr. Robert Watkins, who indicated Bell would likely play again. That didn't dispel the fears of Bell or his coaches, who remained only cautiously optimistic.

As Georgia Tech endured a miserable season in which it went 12-19 and won only two ACC games, Bell pondered a future without basketball.

"It's depressing," Bell said. "From a biological standpoint, working out every day and then going cold turkey, your endorphins just drop and you go into depression. It's something you can't help. I had to learn that myself because I was thinking, 'What's going on?' It was tough, especially since the guys had a tough season as well."

That type of inactivity could have devastated the average basketball player, but Bell is anything but average. His inability to play basketball made this well-rounded student-athlete focus on his other interests.

"He's got a lot of faith," Hewitt said. "I never saw this, 'Why did this happen to me' type of attitude."

Bell graduated in May with a degree in management after appearing on the Dean's List several times. When he wasn't studying his coursework or rehabilitating his body, Bell was writing poems or song lyrics.

"I've always had a passion for it," Bell said of his artistic pursuits.

All the while, Bell was preparing for his return to the basketball court while also getting ready to enter the job market in case he didn't receive medical clearance to return to the team.

"I was ready to accept either [outcome]," Bell said. "The tough thing is I was literally preparing myself for two lives - coming back to play basketball and going into the business world."

Bell was medically cleared in May to return for his senior season. Then he had to decide whether he felt comfortable enough to return.

"I had to make the decision within myself, 'Is this what I want to do again?' " Bell said. "It wasn't tough at all from that standpoint. I have a passion and a love for the game of basketball, but at the same time I had to make an executive decision. I had to listen to my body. My goal was to give it a shot, give it all I've got and see where it goes."

So far, so good.

Bell's return gives Georgia Tech the type of balance that was lacking from the team last season. The duo of Favors and Gani Lawal should give Georgia Tech one of the ACC's top frontcourts, but the Yellow Jackets also should be vastly improved on the perimeter.

The Yellow Jackets already were returning guard Iman Shumpert, who can move off the ball now that freshman point guard Mfon Udofia has arrived on campus. Bell gives Georgia Tech a solid defender who can contribute as either a shooting guard or small forward. He even can play point guard if necessary.

And he also provides plenty of the intangibles critical for a team relying heavily on freshmen.

"He brings two things - leadership and experience," Lawal said. "It's huge."

The Yellow Jackets can't wait to see just how much of a difference Bell can make this season. Bell still is working off the rust after such a long layoff, but he already has noticed some encouraging developments.

"Honestly, I do feel a little different, a little quicker," Bell said. "I just need to play. The more I play, the better I feel."

The more Bell plays, the better the Yellow Jackets should feel.

The imaginary box

The rule change that should have the biggest impact on the upcoming college basketball season is a clarification of what distinguishes a charge from a block.

According to the new rules, a secondary defender can't establish position in an 18-inch by 24-inch area from the front of the rim to the front of the backboard in an attempt to draw a charge from directly under the basket. If an offensive player is dribbling, passing or shooting and runs over a defender in this restricted area, it will be ruled a block instead of a charge.

The rule is similar to the NBA regulation on this issue. The difference is that the NBA has a box marked off at this spot on its courts to make it easier for officials to see if a defender's in the restricted area. College officials won't have that luxury.

"It's imaginary," said John Clougherty, the ACC's coordinator of men's basketball officials. "There are no lines on the floor. It's guesswork for the officials because there are no definitive lines."

Clougherty conceded the lack of a painted area to mark the restricted area could lead to more criticism of officials, particularly in televised games.

"There's nothing wrong with TV shadowing that [restricted] area, putting something in there and saying, 'That player was clearly outside that box,' or 'That should have been a block because the shadow showed he was inside the box,' " Clougherty said. "It just brings additional criticism on the referee who was making a judgment on it."

TIP-INS

One week after the college football world grieved over the fatal stabbing of Connecticut cornerback Jasper Howard, college basketball suffered its own tragedy. Hampton's Theo Smalling, a 22-year-old team captain, died Monday after an accidental shooting. Smalling was such a persuasive player that he reportedly earned a scholarship without ever getting scouted by Hampton. "I never personally saw him play," former Hampton coach Kevin Nickelberry told The (Newport News) Daily Press. "I talked to him on the phone for 25 minutes and I offered him a scholarship at the end of the conversation because he was just a passionate kid. He kept telling me, 'Coach, if you believe in me, you'll never regret it.' "

Pittsburgh may have found a hidden gem in new arrival Chase Adams, who transferred from Centenary after his old school announced plans to move from Division I to the Division III level. Adams was named the Summit League's defensive player of the year last season, but his 21-point performance Tuesday in the Blue-Gold scrimmage indicated the 5-10 guard might be able to contribute on both ends of the floor.

Louisville's two most promising returning players are sophomore center Samardo Samuels and sophomore forward Terrence Jennings - both former five-star prospects - but the two frontcourt players won't necessarily be on the floor at the same time very often this season. At least that's the message Louisville coach Rick Pitino was sending at the Big East media day function last week. "It will hurt their scoring potential if they do [play together]," Pitino told the (Louisville) Courier-Journal. "I think it could hurt the team if both of them, in the final five minutes, are in foul trouble. We can't stretch the defense with both of them in the game. It hasn't made us better defensively if I play them together."

For the first time in league history, two teams finished in a tie for first place in the ACC preseason media prognostications. Duke and North Carolina finished in a dead heat, even though Duke received five more first-place votes than the Tar Heels. They were followed in order by Clemson, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Wake Forest, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Miami, Virginia and N.C. State. The preseason all-ACC team included preseason player of the year Kyle Singler of Duke, Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez, Clemson forward Trevor Booker, Virginia Tech guard Malcolm Delaney and North Carolina forward Ed Davis. Georgia Tech forward Derrick Favors was the preseason rookie of the year.

Speaking of Favors, Hewitt doesn't seem too concerned about his freshman phenom getting caught up in the preseason adulation that forecasts the 6-10 forward could challenge for all-conference or all-America honors in his first year of college basketball. "I will bet you a dollar right now Derrick Favors hasn't looked at one preseason magazine," Hewitt said. "[Maybe] the other guys on my team, but Derrick? No. He knows exactly what that's worth."

The ACC will hold its 2012 conference tournament in Atlanta, but this time the event will take place at the Phillips Arena instead of the Georgia Dome. The 2001 ACC tournament at the Georgia Dome attracted 182,525 fans to become the most attended conference tournament in NCAA history, but last year's tournament at the Georgia Dome wasn't quite as successful. Although the event drew 158,112 fans, an event that normally is an automatic sellout actually made tickets available to the general public for the first time since 1966. The 2012 event marks the only time in the next six years that the ACC tournament won't take place at Greensboro, N.C.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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