Greensboro, N.C. — On Tuesday the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets departed for the ACC tournament hours after their athletics director released a six-sentence statement regarding the basketball program without mentioning the head coach by name. On Thursday they stood 20 minutes from elimination in this event and surely exclusion from the NCAA field. On Sunday they’ll play for the conference title.
Are we surprised? Yes. But also no.
If we didn’t always see it during the middling regular season, we’ve seen it here. This is the most gifted team in this conference, among the five most gifted in the nation. It’s so good it can win without doing the things that are supposed to be part and parcel of winning in March. In three ACC tournament victories — victories, mind you — the Jackets have missed 34 of 75 free throws. Over the past two days they’ve won two games while making 42 baskets against 41 turnovers.
Said Paul Hewitt, the head coach: “We’re kind of imperfect sometimes.”
But these Jackets are also manifestly talented, and they have gears other teams do not. The two players who saved Friday night’s quarterfinal victory over Maryland did it again Saturday against North Carolina State. Derrick Favors made a basket and Iman Shumpert made a steal, and all of a sudden the team that didn’t win three consecutive league games this regular season had taken three in three days.
On Saturday night, its passage to the final against Duke booked, Gani Lawal was asked if this was indeed the Tech team we had awaited all winter. “Yes, we are,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said we were happy with 7-9 [in the ACC regular season]. That was not what we wanted.”
Credit the Jackets — and their head coach, too — for not bailing out on a season that fell below expectations. (Though Hewitt would surely dispute even that: “I know what the truth is,” he said Saturday.) Credit them for holding fast, if not always steady, when North Carolina led by 13 on Thursday and when Maryland stormed from 19 points behind Friday and when overmatched State overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to take a four-point lead Saturday. Credit them for continuing to defend when the offense turned to glop.
Said Shumpert, who induced Pack guard Javier Gonzalez into the fumble inside the final 30 seconds that had the same effect on this game that his strip of Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez had 21 hours earlier: “People gave up on [this team.] As long as the locker room doesn’t give up, I think we’re fine.”
Not many folks will give Tech a chance against the regal Blue Devils in the final. No team has ever won this event playing four games. (Though the Georgia Bulldogs, playing four games over four tornado-tossed days, won the 2008 SEC title — on Tech’s court.) Duke has played but twice, Duke has the great Krzyzewski and Duke is Duke. But have we not yet grasped the peril of discounting Georgia Tech?
Asked if there was any opponent the Jackets felt incapable of matching man-for-man, Lawal said: “We go out sometimes thinking teams can’t match up with us. I’ve said all season our team is as good as any in the country.”
Understatement of this millennium and the next: Tech isn’t a model of precision. Said D’Andre Bell: “We’ve been inconsistent because we haven’t gotten the ball inside consistently.” But it’s getting better the longer it plays, and a season that teetered on the cusp of failure Thursday night is now guaranteed to include a berth in the ACC championship game — yes, just like in football — and next week’s Big Dance.
If you’re seeking a smooth-running squad, go watch Kansas. If you’re interested in an aggregation that can render you awed and apoplectic at the same time, here’s the ticket. “We’re always going to have something to keep you on the edge of your seat,” said Lawal, smiling. Then this: “I’m really proud of these three games.”
He should be. All theses Jackets should be. (The head coach, too.) This season could have ended with a shrug. Instead this team has grabbed us by the collar and said, “Watch us if you dare.”
If you tune in Sunday, you just might get to see this careening crew cut down two sets of nets.