By Jack Williams
This is a December Georgia Tech’s Jon Babul never will forget, and it has nothing to do with Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or anyone else who might show up to spread Christmas cheer.
In a space of one week, Babul played a prominent role for a Tech team that lowered the boom on college basketball’s two most noted teams – UCLA and Kentucky. Then Babul scored the biggest slam dunk of all, finishing his undergraduate requirements toward graduation while posting a 3.1 grade point average and winning honors in the school of management.
This guy’s on a roll. There’s no telling what he may do next.
The truth is Babul has been a model on the basketball court and in the classroom for five years ever since he was recruited by former coach Bobby Cremins off his high school team at North Attleboro, Mass. He was a star there alongside his twin brother, Mike, who went on to an illustrious career at UMass. Mike got the jump on Jon when he graduated at the end of last school year and went on to become an accountant in a large firm in Massachusetts. Now Jon is set to follow suit with a degree at Georgia Tech.
“I’m very proud to fulfill my requirements toward graduation,” Babul said. “A degree from this school will be really special. Tech is tough enough without basketball. Add in all the hours you spend at the sport and it’s really tough. I have a sigh of relief and a great feeling.”
Babul has a great feeling, too, when he relives the recent basketball success of the Yellow Jackets under first-year Coach Paul Hewitt.
“Beating UCLA and Kentucky is very special because of the tradition of those two programs,” he said. “Those wins are something I will never forget. In fact, I rank the Kentucky win as one of three top basketball achievements in my time here. It ranks alongside a win over North Carolina at the Thrillerdome two years ago and our win over Georgia my freshman season. At the time, I didn’t realize how much the rivalry with Georgia means. But I certainly do now.”
Babul says the win over Kentucky helped erase some of the sting of a crushing loss to the Wildcats here two seasons ago. “I remember we were down at the half, 38-12,” he said. “That’s something that is hard to forget.”
Babul credits Tech’s 86-84 win over the Wildcats last Saturday to Coach Hewitt’s racehorse style and conditioning program.
“There is no doubt that the Kentucky players were dragging near the end of the first half,” he said. “Our fast-paced system forced Kentucky to play a small lineup because their big guys couldn’t keep up with us. That made it possible for us to rebound with them. I hope we can force other teams to go to a small lineup.”
Babul likes the Hewitt system, although he admits the practices are not always fun. “The system is fun,” he said, “It involves a lot of discipline and conditioning. The practices are continuous movement. They really are like a game from start to finish. But the conditioning pays off. I definitely can feel it. I can run faster and longer than ever before. I still have some pain in my leg from off-season surgery, but that’s something I just have to have to live with. . “I am still getting a feel for the new coaching staff. Coach Cremins was a fatherly figure to me. I was 18 when I came to Tech and I was looking for the kind of guidance you get from a father. Now, I’m 23 and do not need as much guidance. I can make decisions and do things on my own now.”
Babul says Tech’s basketball goal is simple. “We are shooting for a berth in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “Coach Hewitt talks about that before every game, saying that the particular game is another step in that direction.”
But take it from Babul – it will not be easy. “The ACC, from top-to-bottom, is tougher than ever,” he said. “Duke clearly is the favorite, but Wake Forest and Virginia also are very strong. Maryland got off to a slow start, but will be very good. North Carolina will be there too. They always are.”
Obviously, Babul thinks Tech may be a big factor, too. He’s doing his part to see that it happens that way. The Jackets currently are 5-2, looking ahead to the Stanford Invitational at Palo Alto, Calif., Dec. 18 and 19. Tech faces Idaho State in the opening game. Others in the field are host Stanford, the no. 3 team in the country, and Sacred Heart.
Not noted as a strong scorer, Babul averages 4.6 points a game, but he gives the Jackets a boost every game with his strong rebounding and hustle, especially on the offensive glass.
“Coach Hewitt calls offensive rebounding the ‘hustle stat’,” he said. “It’s more mental than anything else. Some guys relax when the shot goes up. That’s when I swing into action and go after it.”
Babul comes from a very athletic family. His father, Michael, was a basketball player at Rhode Island College and later coached at North Attleboro High School. He coached his twin sons there for one season before stepping down from the position. Today, Michael is a fifth grade elementary school teacher and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.
Jon’ twin, Mike, was a Parade All-America at North Attleboro. “We played alongside each other,” Jon says. “The only negative was that there were a lot of comparisons. But Mike’s presence motivated me to be a better player.”
The family tradition continues. The twins have a younger brother, Jeff, who is a freshman at Keane State in New Hampshire and plays on the basketball team.
Out of high school, Jon was recruited heavily by North Carolina and almost signed with the Tar Heels. “Georgia Tech got in it very late,” he said. “Coach Cremins saw me play at a Five-Star Camp and had me come to Tech on a visit. I liked Atlanta very much and also the Tech campus. Atlanta is a trendy city with lots of new technology being introduced all the time. I don’t know what will happen, but I definitely could live here on a permanent basis.”
Looking ahead, Babul lists three options for his future. “I may go to graduate school at Georgia Tech and pursue a degree in public policy,” he said. “I have always been interested in being a coach. If I get a job as a graduate assistant at some school, then I would attend graduate school at that particular place. Third, there always is the possibility that I might continue to play basketball, perhaps in Europe.”
Meanwhile, Babul has some unfinished business in the classroom and on the basketball court at Georgia Tech. He hopes to use his rebounding prowess and overall hustle to help lift Georgia Tech back among the basketball elite.
No question, he and the Jackets are headed in the right direction.