March 17, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– As the joy ride continues on The Flats, reminders of Georgia Tech’s glory days keep popping up to where it’s uncanny, right down to the Yellow Jackets’ NIT run. It seems to be happening faster than when Bobby Cremins ran the show.
Speaking of that white-haired fellow whose name is on the court in McCamish Pavilion, he loves what he’s seeing out of the old gold and white.
There’s more buzz about Tech men’s basketball than in recent memory, and with a home win Tuesday over Indiana and a pending second-round NIT game Sunday in McCamish Pavilion against Belmont, it’s hard not to look back to when Tech basketball was a thing, ascendant, whether you were a fan or not.
Across the Twitter-verse, there was noise about the noise Tuesday as first-year head coach Josh Pastner’s team racked up its 18th win. Some suggested it was the loudest NIT game ever; the crowd was that jacked.
There was so much juice in the building that if you didn’t know better, you’d think Cremins was running one of his many great teams out there in old Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
“I do sense that,” Cremins said of the energy. “When I see Josh go crazy a few times, it reminds me of when I did it. It wasn’t always good for me, but his players are receptive to it.
“I watched the game. That was a special game, and at a 9 o’clock game to see that crowd like that, I really felt it. I could just see it.”
This has happened before, but it’s been a while, although crowds at McCamish have been more motivated as the season’s worn on and Tech beat North Carolina, Florida State, Notre Dame and Syracuse, not to mention a road win over VCU. All of those teams are in the NCAA Tournament.
By virtue of timing, all of this is saying something, because the NIT – once the biggest college postseason tournament in the land – doesn’t carry the cache of the NCAA Tournament. Often, games are poorly attended, like many Tech games of late, even early this season.
But fans sense something special brewing for the future.
No group’s bigger in what’s happening than Tech students, for whom Pastner bought tickets Tuesday night. NIT tickets are controlled by NIT officials, not host sites, and most students are broke.
“I want to give a shout out to the student section; money well spent,” he said after Tech’s 75-63 win. “They were awesome, gave us a great lift. The energy in the building … it was the least I could do for them.”
That’s a good word, energy.
Pastner has this verve about him, and even if he repeats himself maddeningly about things like this being the, “first year of a major rebuild,” and so forth, with the help of assistants Eric Reveno, Darryl LaBarrie and Travaras Hardy, they’ve transfused spice into their players.
The Jackets play hard, and that carries weight with fans, whether they have Tech affiliations or not. Sidewalkers are showing up again.
Attendance Tuesday was announced at 5,533. Last year, when the Jackets beat Houston 81-62 in a first-round NIT game at McCamish, it was 2,932.
Even though the game was late on a weeknight, folks went nuts, and it helped the Jackets beat a team that was ranked in the top 10 earlier in the season.
“I love playing at home. As the students pack it out like that, all our fans, why not put on a show?” said senior Quinton Stephens, who scored 16 points, grabbed nine rebounds and added three assists. “The crowd was loud; I could barely talk to my own guys. We love it.”
This is, not was, Pastner’s goal.
After he was hired last April, he did quite a bit of consulting, and he says that the No. 1, No. 2 pieces and No. 3 pieces of advice that he kept getting were . . . get students involved, jack up the building, and recruit.
He trolled every group he could last fall on campus, pushing, even if just a handful of students were present.
Cremins gave that tip. Upon taking over the Tech program in 1981, he had a team that went 12-41 the previous two seasons.
“That’s exactly what I did,” he said. “I went around to the fraternities and sororities and asked them to come to games, and begged them not to wear bags over their heads. I said, ‘Just give me a few years before wearing the bags.’ “
The Jackets went 10-16 their first season under Cremins, 13-15 in their second, and 18-11 in their third, with a berth in the NIT. They lost 77-74 at Virginia Tech, but they were on their way.
A season later, the Jackets went 27-8 with legendary players like Mark Price and John Salley, won the ACC Tournament, and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament before falling 60-54 to Georgetown, who was upset in the title game by Villanova.
As the nation’s sixth-ranked team in defensive efficiency, Tech Tuesday clamped down on Indiana in the first half, limiting the Hoosiers – one of the nation’s most effective offensive squads — to 31.3 percent shooting, on the way to a 34-27 lead.
Junior center Ben Lammers blocked five shots in the game, giving him 109 this season, second in Tech history to Alvin Jones’ 141 in 1997-98.
Stephens was stellar in the first half with 11 points, making three 3-pointers.
Indiana took the lead a couple times in the second half, shooting 46.2 percent, but that number is somewhat misleading as the Jackets forced 10 turnovers, and outscored the Hoosiers 16-2 off turnovers.
Tadric Jackson had three steals after halftime while scoring 13 of his 19 points off the bench.
The Jackets went into attack mode, outscoring Indiana 22-12 in the paint after intermission.
“Tadric Jackson, who I’m really hard on, was really good in the second half, and he was good in the second half defensively,” Pastner said. “We had eight kills today, which means eight times we had three consecutive stops.”
The Jackets hang their hats on defense, which Pastner keeps saying is about energy, passion and effort. They’re ranked No. 6 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ranking, and the teams ranked ahead of them — Virginia, Gonzaga, South Carolina, Florida and West Virginia are in the NCAA Tournament. So are the next six squads.
So, defensive concepts are in place.
No less important, the Jackets are ready to play at a break-neck pace, especially now that they’re more rested.
“There’s nothing to hold back,” Stephens said. “It’s the last time playing with these guys, last time playing in front of this crowd, which was awesome [Tuesday]. I’m going after it. I’m trying to play after this.”
Cremins, who has attended several games this season, can hardly wait.
“They really do play hard,” he said. “Nobody, I mean nobody, saw this. It’s just fun, and it’s amazing to see.”