B.J. Elder and Isma'il Muhammad are such good friends that their Georgia Tech teammates refer to them as the twins. They're so close, in fact, that after their freshman year coach Paul Hewitt decided that the two should no longer be roommates. "I wanted them to see other people," Hewitt said with a grin last Friday afternoon as he sat in his Manhattan hotel room. To see where the two had ended up, Hewitt opened a folder and ran a finger down the list of his players' dorm-room assignments. "Let's see, Elder is in 209A, and Muhammad is in...209A." Hewitt blinked. "Oh, my God, they're back together. How'd they do that?"
Hewitt should have known he was no match for the ties that bind Elder, a junior guard, and Muhammad, a junior forward. Their synergy was on vivid display last week when the two combined to score 76 points while leading Georgia Tech to the preseason NIT championship with stunningly easy wins over Connecticut and Texas Tech. ( Muhammad, who comes off the bench for the Yellow Jackets, went 16 for 20 from the floor in the two games and was named tournament MVP.) After vanquishing the nation's top-ranked team by 16 points and the highly regarded Red Raiders by 20, Georgia Tech, which was picked to finish seventh in the ACC by the league's media members, was 5-0 and ranked 13th in this week's AP poll. "If I hadn't been coaching against them, I would have enjoyed watching them play," said Texas Tech coach Bob Knight after the Yellow Jackets' 85-65 win in Friday's final. "They have an energy that's impressive."
Much of that vitality comes from the 6'6", 225-pound Muhammad, a leaper whom Knight described as "a tough kid who plays his ass off." As a senior at Atlanta's W.D. Mohammed High, Muhammad was unpolished offensively. Nevertheless, Hewitt thought that his ability to run the floor was suited to Georgia Tech's up-tempo style. Hewitt knew he had something special when Muhammad, a devout Muslim, helped spark a 20-point comeback against Wisconsin during his freshman year even though he was observing the Ramadan daylight-hours fast
In contrast to the urban-dwelling Muhammad, Elder grew up in rural Madison, Ga. "I've told him, You have so much ability; stop being this shy, quiet, country kid,' " Hewitt says. Elder was plenty assertive against Connecticut, hoisting a career-high 23 shots and scoring 22 points while holding UConn All-America guard Ben Gordon to 13.
The Yellow Jackets' perimeter attack will get even better when junior point guard Will Bynum, a transfer from Arizona, becomes eligible on Dec. 13. In the meantime, Hewitt should be glad that the twins foiled his attempts to separate them, because it's clear that the closer they are, the better they play. "I'm always telling B.J. to be more aggressive and drive more, and he tells me I need to take more jump shots," Muhammad says. "If you could combine the two of us into one player, we'd be unstoppable."