Don’t say it can’t happen. Lewis Clinch saw it happen. He sat in the stands and watched Georgia win the 2008 SEC tournament on Georgia Tech’s floor.
Clinch and the Jackets had been eliminated from the ACC tournament in Charlotte on Friday, the night of the Atlanta tornado. He returned to campus and witnessed Billy Humphrey, his longtime friend who was then a Georgia guard, complete a four-day journey from last place to SEC champions. “He explained how it all felt,” Clinch said, although how can you explain the inexplicable?
Clinch is a senior. Tech’s next loss will be the last of his collegiate life. “As of Thursday, it could all be over,” he said, speaking of the Jackets’ Round 1 game against Clemson, but he feels there’s a chance this lost season could turn around, same as Georgia’s did a year ago.
“I’ve always been a big believer that anything is possible,” Clinch said. “My mother raised me to think anything is possible.”
Here we arrive at the reality check. Georgia won the 2008 SEC tournament by matching its seasonal conference victory total in four tempest-tossed days. For Tech to win the 2009 ACC tournament, the Jackets would have to double their conference output.
In the 56-year history of the ACC, no team has ever lost more league games in one season than Tech just did. Granted, the conference didn’t adopt a 16-game schedule until 1993, but 2-14 is awful no matter how many asterisks are affixed.
“I honestly can’t explain 2-14,” Clinch said. “And at the end of the day, it’s about results.” Here he smiled. “But now we’re 0-0.”
Yes, that’s what every lousy team says entering its conference tournament. Still, there’s a sliver of a reason to think Tech might make a little noise under the Dome’s repaired roof. As articulated by Clinch, here is that reason: “We’re a talented basketball team.”
The most backhanded of compliments: This is the most gifted 14-loss team in ACC annals. Gani Lawal was second in the conference in rebounding and field-goal percentage. Iman Shumpert made the all-rookie team. Clinch has averaged 23.8 points over the past five games, four of which were losses. Yet he said, without a hint of irony: “We’re actually playing good basketball.”
There should have been good basketball in this team, but the league’s fourth-highest-paid coach failed his players. Still, the tournament affords a last chance to right manifold wrongs and, as chances go, this one doesn’t look half-bad. Tech will, after all, be playing in its hometown against Clemson, which has never won an ACC tournament. (Florida State, which Tech would play in Round 2, has reached the semifinals only once.) And Tech, as Clinch said, “has a history in big games.”
OK, so it’s not recent history. But he recalls driving from Cordele to Washington, D.C., as a high school senior and watching the Jackets whip North Carolina, which would go on to win the the NCAA title, in the semis and take Duke to the wire in the final. The 2005 run was essentially the program’s last appearance on the national stage, but if Georgia taught us anything it’s that March can spawn all manner of upheaval.
“We’re going to go in fighting,” Clinch said. “I don’t think any of these teams are unbeatable … We’ve got just as good a shot at winning it as anybody.”
Go ahead and laugh. But as you’re laughing, don’t make the mistake of saying something so strange could never happen. It happened in this very city 52 weeks ago. And Tech has better players than Georgia did
And now a word of warning: I’ll be blogging live from the first session of the ACC tournament tomorrow afternoon. We’ll get started around noon, when Virginia Tech and Miami tip off, and we’ll have at it until Georgia Tech finishes its game, and perhaps its season, against Clemson. Join me for witty repartee and incisive reportage. Or, failing that, just to keep from being bored while you’re sitting at work. You might not be glad you did, but I sure will.