You know the weird part? Even after this latest jaw-dropping loss, I wouldn’t be stunned if Georgia Tech reached the Sweet Sixteen. (Of the NCAA tournament, not the NIT.)
Yes, the Jackets just lost a home game in which they fell 17 points behind an opponent missing its second-leading scorer. I’m painfully aware the story of this season is of promise untapped. But I keep looking at this team and I see, same as I saw in December, massive potential.
Ordinarily I’d say this would be just another case of me being my moronic self, but here’s what Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, who’s manifestly not a moron, said Saturday: “That team we played is young and talented. That team could quite honestly go deep into the NCAA tournament.”
And there’s the tangle: The team presumably capable of making a big run in the Big Dance might not get invited.
Georgia Tech just took the ACC’s deepest roster and finished seventh in a 12-team league. It went 7-9 in a defoliated league. It began the conference season with a home loss to Florida State and ended it with a home loss to Virginia Tech and won only one league road game. Its best victory came over Duke on Jan. 9. It hasn’t had a three-game winning streak in this calendar year.
Even by Paul Hewitt’s standards, this is underachievement of the first rank. That said, the season isn’t over. There’s still — still, I say — a chance for this team to rewrite what has become a sobering saga.
Two weeks ago Hewitt was telling us his team was on the verge of big things and how great it was on defense. Tech has since lost two of three and is playing its way out of the NCAA tournament. In those two losses, the Jackets have yielded an average of 89.5 points and allowed Clemson and Virginia Tech to make 53 percent of their shots.
“Believe what you see,” Hewitt famously Tweeted, but even disbelievers are having a tough time processing this. How can so many good players yield such tepid results?
Asked Saturday if Tech is an NCAA tournament team, Gani Lawal said, “Yes.” Asked if he believes it will receive an NCAA invitation, he said, “Yes.” Asked if he’d have imagined any way these Jackets would have finished under .500 in the ACC, Lawal said:
“No, sir. No, sir. With this amount of talent, I’d be lying to you if I said that.”
A visitor then read aloud Greenberg’s quote about “young and talented” Georgia Tech having the potential to make a March surge. To his credit, Lawal swatted away the crutch. “We’ve got a veteran team. I don’t buy that [about being "young"]. Yes, we’ve got young guys, but we’re a veteran team.”
For 31 minutes Saturday, we saw the Jackets play to their weaknesses: Taking too many jump shots, failing to feed Lawal and Derrick Favors enough underneath, allowing the clever Hokies to spread the court so Malcolm Delaney could orchestrate. This enabled Georgia Tech to trail by 17 with nine minutes left. But then, fired by desperation, we saw the Jackets’ manpower take hold.
They would draw within three points before the great wave broke, but we saw in those 8 1/2 minutes the team Tech could be if it were to pull together, if its point guards could learn to feed the post and take three-pointers only after the ball has first gone inside. We saw skill and passion and shotmaking and defending.
Maybe we’ll see more of it in Greensboro. Maybe the Jackets will win two or three times and leave the NCAA committee no cause to doubt. It’s always bad policy to expect a team to play in March in a way it hasn’t all season, but for the March is all that remains. They either get it right or they go down as a flop of megaton dimensions.
I know, I know. There’s almost no reason to expect anything more at this date, no reason except this: Georgia Tech has really good players. At some point that talent has to be brought to bear. I mean, doesn’t it?