Feb. 21, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– Having been in the middle of something so rare as what’s happening with the Georgia Tech men’s basketball team, it was easy to lose cool Sunday as the Yellow Jackets beat Syracuse. It’s so wonderful to witness the concept of Esprit de’ Corps come to life.
There is more than one way to describe Tech’s amazing drive into conversation about a possible NCAA Tournament bid, but the best I could do as junior center Ben Lammers kept flicking jumpers and spinning crafty bunnies was to break press box decorum and yell a few times, “He’s like Bill freaking Walton!”
Never mind that the Jackets were picked to finish last, or next-to-last in the ACC before the season.
My colleagues spared me stare downs because, for one, they’re also marveling over the way the Jackets are exceeding ALL expectations, and because, well, it was so loud in McCamish Pavilion as Tech registered its fourth whopping ACC upset of the season that perhaps I was barely heard.
That alone is astounding.
The Jackets’ mutual bonding and continuous sharing of energy is so remarkable as to be barely precedented.
The buzz is back on The Flats, where Tech students were as loud and jacked as in years and years for a basketball game.
And why not. With that 71-65 win over the Orange, the Jackets went from the “first four out” category that ESPN’s Joe Lunardi expertly works during the season to project the NCAA Tournament field to his “last four in.”
These are smart young people, and they sense something special.
And the Jackets, now 16-11 and 7-7 in the nation’s best conference, feel it back.
It’s not just extra winning that’s juicing Tech fans, it’s the way these young men and first-year head coach Josh Pastner go about their business — all out.
“I think we’re all buying into what coach Pastner started from Day One: just playing with energy, leaving it out there, and if another team is better than us, we get beat,” said senior Quinton Stephens.
“We’re going to stick to our game plan, and play as hard as we can. I think that’s why most people enjoy watching us, because we play so hard.”
And there’s the hallmark of this team. Every squad of destiny has at least one.
Silly as it might seem to compare the Jackets’ joyride to the Falcons’ shocking run to the Super Bowl out of the 1998 season, or the Braves’ worst-to-first turnaround on the way to the World Series in 1991, there are similarities in this unfolding passion play.
Much as a great revisionist might be inclined to say that he or she saw all along freshman Josh Okogie as one of the ACC’s best freshmen, or that they predicted that Lammers might be the nation’s most improved player, or that the Jackets would be grizzlies on defense, diehard Braves and Falcons fans likewise glowed as their teams surpassed any sane dissection of their prospects ahead of the season.
Those teams, and this one, have a synergy that makes the sum of parts greater than the parts themselves. That appeals.
“From where my bosses, coaches in the league, national media members, [local] media members told me what was going to happen this year, to be where we are right now is nothing short of amazing,” Pastner said.
“Literally, it’s a modern miracle. God bless our young men. It’s a credit to our young men. It’s not me, it is our players and what they have done. How they’ve bonded. It’s all about team, team, team and that’s a credit to them.”
There must be individual components to over-arching success.
In 1991, nobody predicted the Braves’ young pitchers would so excel, nor that Terry Pendleton would crawl out of a scrap heap and win the National League MVP award and batting title.
When the Falcons went 14-2 in 1998, I covered that team for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was stunned time and again by the confluence of surpassing performances and fate.
Quarterback Chris Chandler, like Pendleton, came out of relative nowhere to play the best season of his life. Well-traveled wide receiver Tony Martin, acquired in June via trade with San Diego, paired with Terance Mathis to give Atlanta two 1,000-yard wideouts. Jamal Anderson, previously little more than a burly quote machine, led the NFL with 1,846 rushing yards on an NFL-record 410 carries.
And there was remarkable energy surrounding both teams. Fans went nuts.
So it is now on The Flats, where McCamish Pavilion is feeling quite like Alexander Memorial Coliseum — the Thrillerdome –back in Cremins’ days, you know, like when Dennis Scott, Kenny Anderson and Brian Oliver led the Jackets to the Final Four in the 1989-90 season?
They were there Sunday, signing autographs before the Jackets ripped off their fifth straight home win. Tech has beaten four RPI top-50 teams (No. 25 VCU, No. 5 North Carolina, No. 12 Florida State, No. 26 Notre Dame). That’s balanced against losses to seven top 50 RPI teams (No. 4 Louisville, at No. 11 Duke, at No. 15 Virginia, at No. 35 Virginia Tech, at No. 38 Wake Forest, at No. 45 Miami and at No. 50 Tennessee).
If there was any doubt something special is happening at Tech, Oliver stepped in for a fan at halftime for the half-court pizza shot — and banked it in off the glass.
The building absolutely roared.
And not for the last time, as the Jackets trailed by nine a few minutes before halftime, and then put together a 28-7 run over the end of the first half and the first nine-plus minutes of the second half.
When junior guard Tadric Jackson buried a 3-pointer with 10:47 left in the game for a 49-37 Tech lead, after one of Lammers’ career-high three steals, the place went bananas. Jackson scored 20 off the bench.
It’s the new normal.
And much as the Jackets’ individual improvements are based in grass-roots work with Pastner and assistants Eric Reveno, Tavaras Hardy and Darryl LaBarrie, months of scheming went into creating that noise.
A long silence has been interrupted with a re-embrace of internal energy.
“The student section was awesome. I remember in the spring and the summer and the fall … I’d go to student groups to try to generate interest from students because everywhere I would go people would come to me and tell me, `You’ve got to get the students involved,’ ” Pastner recalled.
“I’d go to student groups and there would be four people, two people, six people, but I didn’t care how small the group was, I would go speak. I was hoping that they would maybe catch a little enthusiasm and energy and kind of pay it forward, which is one of my favorite movies of all time.
“I remember going fraternity and sorority meetings, and they’re probably looking, like, `What is this guy doing?’ But the students really came through.”
Players are coming through, too.
Magic moments keep coming.
In 1991, there was no moment better than Francisco Cabrera singling home a sliding Sid Bream in the bottom of the ninth inning of game seven to send the Braves to the World Series.
In 1998, the Falcons crafted many epic moments, like when Lester Archambeau sacked Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe and Chuck Smith returned a fumble 71 yards on the way to a 41-10 win in New England, or when the Falcons returned six takeaways or punts/kicks for touchdowns that season.
Those guys were so much better than themselves because they believed.
Same with the Jackets.
Okogie authored a fabulous snapshot when he scored just ahead of the buzzer on and end-to-end fast break to beat No. 12 Notre Dame on Jan. 28, and he and his teammates are writing a helluva book.
With wins at Tournament-bound VCU, and over No. 9 North Carolina, No. 6 Florida State, No. 14 Notre Dame and Tournament prospect Syracuse, they’re paying forward for fans, and themselves.
The fans’ juice helps.
“Especially if you have any kind of minor injury, once you get going adrenaline usually helps with that especially if you’re in front of a sellout,” Lammers said after scoring 23 points with seven rebounds and seven blocked shots. “You don’t really think about it too much.”
Likewise, Pastner’s not getting into the business of thinking about what Tech needs to do to earn a tournament berth. He’s taking on the movement, and coaching players to do the same.
“It is daily, 24/7 work for me not to get involved in expectations, meaning start thinking about the future, starting thinking about what we have to do, this or that,” he said. “Even health-wise, for the stress I put on myself … I constantly try to stay out of expectations or bubble or tournament.
“I used the word `enjoy’ to our guys. Like [Sunday], that was our key word. Enjoy the game. Enjoy the sellout crowd. You’re playing Syracuse. For me, I told the guys I never sit down. I started the game sitting down. Sellout crowd, I’m coaching against Jim Boeheim, who’s one of the greatest ever … so enjoy it.”
Everybody’s enjoying it. As Stephens said after registering a career-high eight assists, the Jackets lay it on the line. Never mind that sprained ankle.
“I don’t think anyone’s holding anything back, especially me; this is my last go-round … I’m going after it,” he said. “I was bouncy. I was ready.
“Can’t get more jacked up than having a sellout crowd, playing against Syracuse, playing with my teammates . . . that energy’s contagious so we appreciate all the support … We’re all leaving it on the court.”