March 26, 2017
— Georgia Tech Sports (@GTAthletics) March 24, 2017
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Wanna talk about March Madness? Look no further than at how quickly Georgia Tech’s fortunes have turned in less than three weeks.
On March 8, Georgia Tech’s charter was headed back to Atlanta from New York the day after elimination from the ACC Tournament in a first-round game against Pittsburgh played at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
At that point, there wasn’t much left in the tank, physically or mentally.
“Our lack of depth, it probably wore us out toward the end of the year because we milked everything from our guys,” said head coach Josh Pastner, who has since been named National Association Basketball Coaches (NABC) District 2 Coach of the Year and Georgia Coach of the Year by the Atlanta Tipoff Club, joining his previous ACC Coach of the Year honor. “I think they just got exhausted.”
But out of the disappointment of the loss to Pittsburgh — and a little rest — came a fresh resolve and the inspiration for something big and bright.
“We kind of knew our chance of going to the (NCAA) Tournament was slim-to-none. We said, `If we’re going to go out we might as well go out playing as fun as we want, as hard as we can,'” recalled ACC all-freshman guard Josh Okogie. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re going back to playing fun and loose. Everybody’s just coming out and having fun and playing hard. I think that’s the biggest change.”
That change has led to a change of fortune over the last three weeks.
With a refresher of why they were playing the game and fresher bodies with which to do so, the Jackets have gone on a season-high-tying three-game winning streak, only their second of the season.
They scored home wins over Indiana and Belmont then earned its third road win of the season, a wire-to-wire win at Ole Miss, and will roll back into New York to take a second, and they hope longer and bigger, bite of the Big Apple in the NIT final four.
It will certainly be different.
— GT Men’s Basketball (@GTMBB) March 25, 2017
For starters, their opponent won’t be anyone they’ve ever seen, as Tuesday’s semifinal opponent is CSU Bakersfield, the Western Athletic Conference’s regular-season champ. Should the Jackets advance to the championship game they’d meet Central Florida, whom they’ve also never met, or TCU, which Georgia Tech faced twice in the 1960s. Assistant coach Eric Reveno is the only member of the team, coaching or training staff even ALIVE at that time, and he would have been in diapers for it.
They also won’t be going back to Barclays. Instead they’ll be center stage under the bright lights of Manhattan, playing at Madison Square Garden, with all its tradition and history.
The aura around the Garden is something players know about and can’t wait to experience for themselves.
“I think it will be special, really special,” said senior guard Josh Heath. “I won’t actually know how I feel about it until I’m actually on the court, but I’m really looking forward to it. I remember watching the Syracuse-UConn game go into six overtimes (in the 2009 Big East Tournament quarterfinal, won by No. 18 Syracuse, 127-117, over the No. 3 Huskies). I was watching that live, and I was in New York at the time.”
“It’s big. It’s really big. I remember as a little kid watching — not even just basketball — but artists like Michael Jackson perform there,” said Okogie. “That I’m able to go there and perform my skills is just wonderful. It’s a blessing.”
Junior center Ben Lammers, an All-ACC second-teamer and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, feels there’s no better place than MSG to make history.
“It’s always been such a great place,” he said. “Whether it’s a performance like (Michael Jackson) or for basketball. So it’s exciting to go and be a part of that history and play in such a great venue like that.
“It’s going to be nationally televised, so it’s another good thing to get our program out there to hopefully get more fans, more followers. It’s also fun for the guys,” added Lammers, who joked that his fun would NOT include doing Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk,” something he said he’d leave to Okogie. “It’s a lot more fun playing in front of a crowd, it’s more fun to play on national television, especially if it’s somewhere like New York.”
The last three games have been fun everywhere the Jackets have played, as they’ve brought energy and unselfishness resulting in numbers that have taken Pastner’s breath away.
“I think we have 80 made field goals and 61 assists. That’s an incredible stat. Incredible,” he said. “I think we’re just making shots right now. We hadn’t shot as well as we have all year until this three-game stretch.”
Another stat which caught Pastner’s attention and showed just how poised this group has become is the Jackets’ record when leading with 5:00 to play.
“We’re 18-0,” he said. “That’s a great compliment to our young men on them being able to finish the plays and execute down the stretch. That stat right there, is pretty special.”
Georgia Tech is two wins shy of completing what has become a special season with an NIT championship. It’s something that would be a nice stepping stone in rebuilding as it has been for other NCAA Tournament Elite Eight teams South Carolina under Frank Martin and Baylor under Scott Drew.
While he’d like that to be Georgia Tech, Pastner wouldn’t trade the thrill of this four-week run for a shorter-lived birth in the NCAAs. In fact, that his team is still playing is something he wouldn’t have thought possible after the Jackets “were lucky to get a victory” in the first exhibition game, an overtime against Division II Shorter.
“No question, we want to be in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “But for what we’ve gotten out of this — home fans, the wins that we’ve had, we get to 20 wins, we’re most wins in the history of Georgia Tech at home with 17, the exposure that we’re getting out of it, all these things — and on top of that, in this rebuild we still haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament, so it’s something to continue to shoot for. We’re having such a great year, but there’s still a lot to be played for as we look into the future.”
Okogie will be a big part of that future. He likes the progress the team has made this year and where the program is going.
“When people think about Georgia Tech now they think about a team that is really fun to watch, a team that is going to play hard, a team that is going to play with high energy and give it their all,” he said. “Coach always says, `We can never control the scoreboard. What we can control is how hard we play and we’ll just have to live with the results.’ This year the results are pretty good and I think we’ve started a solid foundation for the years to come.”
“I think now the players have more of an impact on the program than the coaches do,” he added. “Coach does a good job of preaching to us how hard we should play. Now we know what it’s going to take next year, we can preach to the new guys. `This is what it’s going to take.’ Now we can be self-motivated instead of our coaches having to motivate us.”