I caught a lot of grief for suggesting back in December — it was the day Georgia Tech first played Florida State — that the Jackets “should have a splendid chance of reaching the Final Four.” On cue, Tech lost to the Seminoles, prompting one and all to question my eyesight and sanity. (And by “all,” I include myself.)
You know by now Tech has again done what has become a Tech tradition — it lost another winnable game to Leonard Hamilton and his ‘Noles. It missed as many free throws (11) as it sank. It made 20 turnovers. It ended the game with a turnover when a 3-pointer would have won. By checking The Hive, I know what many observers are already saying, and I’m thinking you have some idea what this observer is about to say. But here I’m going to disappoint you.
I don’t think this FSU game was a failure. When one good team plays another good team, one of them’s going to lose. It helps if you’re the good team playing at home, and that’s one reason this game troubles me far less than the first Florida State loss.
The other reason, the bigger by far, is that we’ve learned much about Tech in the past five weeks. And we’ve learned (I say again) that this team should have a splendid chance to reach the Final Four.
In December, Tech hadn’t beaten anyone of consequence unless you count Siena. In January the Jackets have beaten Duke, North Carolina and Clemson. Had it beaten Florida State, we’d be crediting Tech with victories over the four ACC teams that figure to play deep into the NCAA tournament. (Sorry, but I still don’t trust Wake Forest.) Even in losing, Tech showed enough to make us believe it’s no less capable of a long postseason run.
Gani Lawal scored only five points and Derrick Favors 10 and even Zachery Peacock, who’s the best sub in the land, had a quiet day — and still the Jackets led inside the final 30 seconds on the road. Brian Oliver scored 20 points, and Brian Oliver is Tech’s seventh man. And there’s the reason I’m so high on these Jackets.
They won’t play a team with greater overall talent. They won’t be awed in any game anywhere. They’ve already beaten teams led by Coach K and Ol’ Roy, who have five national championships between them, and they’ve gone against the likes of Kyle Singler and Ed Davis and Trevor Booker and Solomon Alabi.
During the strange week that saw Tech lose to Georgia but beat Duke, Paul Hewitt said, “This team knows it has a high ceiling.” The Jackets know this because they look across the locker room and see talent everywhere, the deepest collection of talent in Tech annals.
And these guys are learning to coexist, which wasn’t readily apparent five weeks ago. They lost Sunday by two points, but they’ll handle Wake here Thursday and they’ll be better in Feburary than they are now, and they’ll be a load come the Ides of March.
Understand: I’m not ready to say, “Tech will reach the Final Four.” But at least now I don’t feel I was insane when I suggested this team has that potential. Because it does. And for those who say Hewitt can coach them there, I say this: He took a team to the national title game in 2004, and this team is far more gifted.
(Oh, and I’ve seen some Tech fans complaining about the shot Lawal took inside the final 10 seconds. I had no problem with it. Hewitt called a timeout — yes, Hewitt had a timeout in his pocket — and got the ball to his best player. The same happened out of a timeout against Duke, and Lawal hit the game-clinching turnaround. That was a tough shot, but he nailed it. This was a tough shot, and he missed. It happens.)