March 2, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– There was a moment of keen acuity very late Tuesday evening, like just shy of midnight, when as Ben Lammers and Josh Okogie exited the stage from which Georgia Tech players and coaches address media after games … Lammers stumbled stepping down.
“Are you OK, Ben?!,” came a call from the back of the room.
Josh Pastner had just arrived after meeting post-game radio responsibilities, and in looking after the prospects of his program, he wondered.
With the Yellow Jackets (17-13, 8-9 ACC) in fringe conversation for an NCAA Tournament bid in the wake of a 61-52 win over Pitt in McCamish Pavilion, any such talk would be hushed without Lammers or Okogie.
So as Tech’s lone big guy flashed another sheepish grin upon collecting himself and going un-injured after scoring a game-high 20 points, Pastner said something like, “because somebody in the media department would’ve been in trouble.”
And laughter rose in the room.
What were the odds? Really, who could’ve forecast such circumstance?
One game left in the regular season, Saturday at Syracuse, and Pastner’s cracking a joke that is not of the gallows variety?
Well, yes, because Georgia Tech is listed among the “First Four Out” of the Tournament by ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi, a respected bracketologist.
Perhaps it wasn’t a shock. Pastner and the Jackets are playing with house money.
At ACC preseason meetings, the media types picked Tech to finish 14th in the league. They weren’t wrong in that. Even Pastner’s coaching brethren jumped in to steel him for his first season on The Flats, where the graduation of Marcus Georges-Hunt and four others would send Tech into the season as inexperienced as any team in the land.
Yet minutes away from the sport’s magic month, the head coach raised giggles.
The Jackets are not supposed to be in this spot. They’ve already surpassed expectation. This is all fun.
Tuesday was more of the same. Tech was offensive for a while against the Panthers (15-15, 4-13), trailing 28-25 at halftime after shooting 33 percent. That was nothing new.
Everybody else in the primary rotation – and Pastner played a few more people than usual — combined to go 1-of-8.
Yet Tech went on to win for two big-picture reasons, one a benchmark and another that’s hoped for every time they lace ‘em up; the Jackets defended as if prison releases were on the line, and caught fire late with the ball in their hands.
So, there was a very good feeling in the room after Tech scored on nine of their final 10 possessions to overcome deficit – a tribute to hallmark grit.
“This was definitely a good kind of pick-me-up game,” Lammers said.
Looking at Pitt’s record and knowing nothing else, that might seem odd. The Panthers, somewhat like the Jackets, have authored some moments.
After losing their ACC opener by a point to No. 24 Notre Dame, they beat No. 11 Virginia and later Syracuse and No. 17 Florida State. Their starting backcourt of seniors Jamel Artis and Michael Young entered the game averaging a combined 39.4 points per game.
Those two combined for 28 Tuesday, when Pitt shot just 37.7 percent on the way to a season-low in points in ACC action, 52.
“We hang our hats on defense,” Okogie had just said.
And the Jackets must. There are not enough scoring threats, especially from beyond the arc, for Tech to out-score.
So, the guys work, really work at the end of the floor where effort matters more than skill. Tech comfortably leads the ACC in field goal defense (40 percent) and other statistics to rank among the nation’s top 10 defensive efficiency teams.
So, they’re in the conversation.
“I believe eight wins in the ACC, how do you not be in the NCAA Tournament?” Pastner asked. “Eight wins? Holy Toledo, this is the best league. Look at our wins. We should automatically be in the NCAA Tournament.”
There’s all kind of chatter about what makes an NCAA Tournament team, with all kinds of metrics being pulled into examination.
Unquestionably, Tech has a nice list of quality wins.
The RPI is not a big component of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s criteria, but it lends an idea to quality of wins and pain of defeats.
Without going too deep, the Jackets are in the mix chiefly for sake of beating – using Realtime RPI – No. 5 North Carolina, No. 12 Florida State, No. 22 VCU (on the road) and No. 23 Notre Dame. That’s four in the top 25.
The debate over bad losses comes up. Losing two weekends ago at home to N.C. State, whom the Jackets earlier beat at their place, doesn’t help. The committee may not consider that Tech was “physically and mentally exhausted,” according to Pastner, in that game, nor that four players were dealing with ankle injuries.
But the point here is not to dive deep so much as revel in inclusion.
Georgia Tech is in the conversation – in March.
It’s been a while.
Winning Saturday in the Carrier Dome, where the Jackets upset the No. 7 Orange in 2014, would be significant, though not huge. SU is ranked No. 79 in the RPI. Yet, it would be a road win in what some argue is the most challenging gauntlet of a conference in NCAA history.
Then, what might the Jackets need to do in the ACC Tournament?
Lay your thoughts out there. Absolutely nobody knows for sure.
But again, they’re in the conversation.
Just after his brief stand-up comedy with Lammers Tuesday, he barked out to Okogie as the two student-athletes fled the room, “Hey, Josh O.,” before saying something about the freshman winning seven 50-50 balls in the Pitt game.
Everybody involved understands the effort. That’s why they’re all here.
“I think we’re going in with the same mentality we had these last 17 ACC games,” Okogie said of the Syracuse game. “We’re going to play as hard as we can, play for each other, move the ball, and we hang our hats on defense. We’re going to defend our butts off, and the scoreboard is going to take care of itself.”