March 21, 2017
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Want to see determination?
Tell an athlete he can’t do something.
Georgia Tech men’s basketball has been hearing what it can’t do all year long.
Combine that constantly stoked competitive fire with the positive energy of first-year coach Josh Pastner, and the kind of problem-solvers found on The Flats and the Yellow Jackets’ drive through the first two rounds of the NIT makes perfect sense.
Their end game is to get to play in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
It’s something they were told they couldn’t do on March 12 when the Yellow Jackets were left out of the NCAA Tournament (the East Regional’s Sweet 16 is scheduled to play there this weekend.).
Here’s where the problem-solving came in.
Tech was offered another way to get to Manhattan and “The World’s Most Famous Arena” — win their way to the final four of the National Invitation Tournament.
“We were saying we have to do some work and figure out a way we could still be able to get back to New York, since we missed the other tournament,” said senior forward Quinton Stephens, who is tied for the team lead in postseason scoring with freshman Josh Okogie (19.5 ppg), and is pulling in 8.5 rebounds, second only to Ben Lammers’ 10.5. “I think we’ll be there.”
The sixth-seeded Jackets are one win away but that one win won’t be easy. It’ll mean beating No. 5 Ole Miss Tuesday night in Oxford, Miss., on the Rebels’ home floor. Tipoff is at 9 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN2.
“They’ve got really good players, obviously, Andy Kennedy’s the winningest coach in Ole Miss history so we’re going to have to play really well,” said Pastner. “I don’t know if they’re the MOST athletic team we’ll play all year, but they’re going to be right up there. They’re good athletes and they’re big.”
Would you expect anything short of a collossus standing in the Yellow Jackets’ way?
The preseason predictions and bottom-floor expectations have been well documented. So is the way this team has come together and continued to achieve. The latest steps came Sunday when they blew out Ohio Valley Conference regular-season champ Belmont, 71-57, two days after routing Indiana, 75-63.
Both came at McCamish Pavilion, where Jackets fans created an incredible home court advantage and helped the Jackets set a school record with 17 home wins.
On Tuesday, Georgia Tech will go to a different and much more hostile pavilion, The Pavilion at Ole Miss, where the Rebels, enjoyed a 13-5 record.
While the Jackets are 2-10 in true road games this season, don’t tell them they can’t win. They are confident and needn’t look any further than their opponent for further inspiration.
“Ole Miss went into Syracuse and won. TCU went into Iowa and won. Oakland went into Clemson and won. So there’s been precedent in this NIT,” said Pastner. “There have been some games where road teams that have won on the road. I’m hoping we can follow.”
The Jackets are doing things that make winning on the road possible.
“We’ve become a great defensive team,” said Pastner, after beating Belmont, which pulled off one of those NIT road wins by, upending Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum in the first round. “We have become a great defensive team, and overall we’ve become a very good basketball TEAM. Just to see the evolution how far we’ve come and the strides we’ve made….”
The Jackets harassed the Bruins, making, by their count, 29 deflections and seven kills — the Jackets’ buzz word for making back-to-back-to-back stops. Their defense, ranked sixth in defensive efficiency in the country, held Belmont 20 points below its season average, after keeping Indiana 17 points below its usual.
Offensively they’ve hit the magic number of 70 for the second straight game (Tech is 15-0 this season when scoring 70 points), led by Stephens, who put in a career-high 23 against Belmont, Okogie, who has scored in double digits for a season-high 13 straight games, Ben Lammers whose has back-to-back double-doubles (his season-high is three straight games) and Tadric Jackson supplying a shot in the arm with his 17th 10-point game off the bench and back-to-back games of 19 and 12 points. In Sunday’s win, the unselfish Jackets handed out 23 assists on 26 field goals, and they’re assist-to-turnover ratio is 40-17.
Those numbers bode well but they’ll have to rebound to handle the SEC’s top rebounding team (42.0 rpg), and second-leading offensive rebounding team (13.0 ORPG) led by the conference’s second-leading rebounder Sebastian Saiz (11.3 rpg).
“They’re a very good offensive-rebounding team,” said Pastner. “We have to try to limit them to one shot. Everyone has to stick their nose in there and come up with hard-nosed, tough, two-hand-two-feet rebounds if we want to have a chance.”
What they have done is put themselves on the verge of a second straight 20-win season and an opportunity to make additional history in this, the school’s ninth NIT appearance, by being the first to earn its way to New York and only the second one to ever get there.
The only other Yellow Jackets to get to the Garden were the 1971 team, coached by John “Whack” Hyder’s and led by Rich Yunkus. They got to the final game, beating LaSalle, Michigan, and St. Bonaventure in double-overtime, before falling to North Carolina. Getting to New York was easier then, as the entire tournament was played there.
Since then, the Jackets have come close but have fallen just short, getting to the quarters in three of their last four NIT appearances. Bobby Cremins’ 1998 team lost to Penn State at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, Paul Hewitt’s 2003 club came up a step short, falling at Texas Tech, and last season, Brian Gregory and Company got to the quarters before losing at San Diego State.
A win would punch a ticket to next week’s final four, beginning Tuesday, the 28th against the winner of Cal State Bakersfield and UT-Arlington.
“We’d like nothing more than to get to New York because it’s another week or so of great opportunity, exposure for the program, part of the rebuild, what we’re trying to do,” said Pastner, who was 0-2 against the Rebels and Kennedy while at Memphis — this will be his first game coaching at The Pavilion at Ole Miss. “Tuesday night, we’re playing on national television again. You just can’t say enough about the importance of that exposure. “This year, from where we started to where we are now, it’s a great story and it’s a great opportunity for our team to continue to build this foundation.”
The program’s beginning is Stephens’ end. It’s an end he’d prefer to keep putting off, as he’s enjoying this fun, albeit unpredictable, road.
“Ole Miss is a good team. They beat Syracuse, a team that I wanted to play. I wanted to play Georgia,” he said, with a laugh. “But things are just lining up. We have to go get an away game.”
“I couldn’t ask for a better coach, a better team,” he added. “I’m just really having a lot of fun. I’m grateful.”
Especially to those that continue telling him and the Jackets what they can’t do.