Milwaukee — There are two ways this can work: Georgia Tech can take its run to the ACC finals and let that stand as a season-saver, or it can fashion an even stronger run and make us remember this team not as the bunch that went 7-9 in ACC regular-season play but as one of the most memorable in Institute annals. Given your druthers, you’d obviously choose the latter. But it doesn’t always work that way.
In 2000 Arkansas won four games in four days to win the SEC tournament (Joe Johnson was among those Hogs); it lost its first NCAA tournament game. In 2006 Syracuse won four games in four days and won the Big East; it lost its first NCAA game. In 2008 the Georgia Bulldogs won four games in four days and won the SEC on Tech’s floor; it lost its first NCAA game.
Tech won three games in Greensboro and nearly a fourth. But sometimes the worst thing you can do when you’re playing well is to stop playing for a few days. Tech authored its best basketball of the season in Greensboro — granted, there were snippets of inelegance tossed in — and now the question becomes: Was that it? Was the good stuff left in North Carolina?
To the surprise of no one, the Jackets don’t think it was. “We’ve got a lot more to accomplish and a lot more in us,” D’Andre Bell said Thursday. “What we did [in the ACC tournament] was definitely a blessing, but we’ve got a lot more in the tank.”
The Jackets will face a team unlike themselves in their NCAA opener, which is the way of most 7-versus-10 games. Neither side enters off a dominating season, but each does something well enough to make it dangerous. The Jackets pound the ball inside. The Oklahoma State Cowboys rain treys from everywhere; they’ve taken 205 more three-pointers than has Tech.
And that’s why 7-10 games are the toughest to handicap. How do you know how you’ll do against a team unlike any you’ve seen?
In such a setting, a team usually banks on its defense. Here was Tech’s Gani Lawal: “Our effort [in Greensboro] was great and our defense was great. If we defend well, we’ll be in every game with a chance to win in the last five minutes. And that’s all you can ask.”
Tech’s defense was rather good all season, with one blip: Opponents made 37.9 percent of their shots against Tech, which ranked second-lowest in the ACC, but the Jackets’ three-point defense was only seventh-best in the league. And in the final two regular-season games (both losses), Clemson and Virginia Tech — teams not known for long-range artistry — made 21 of 44 treys.
But that was then. Georgia Tech is playing better now. It has a focus and a framework that went missing in January and February. It knows now that Derrick Favors is its best player and must be fed. It knows that its next loss will be its last.
The guess is that Tech’s strength will override the Cowboys’ forte. The guess is that the run that commenced in North Carolina will pick up again by the shores of Lake Michigan. The guess is that size — and defense — will prevail, and then we’ll see on Sunday just how far this team has really come. The best team in the Big Ten figures to be waiting in a city amid Big Ten country.
Two weeks ago, we weren’t sure if these Jackets could beat a bad North Carolina team just to reach the Big Dance. But things changed in Greensboro, and what held true before isn’t necessarily so anymore. Get past Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech will have a shot to rebrand itself against Ohio State. Get past Oklahoma State and an even more stirring surge could be at hand.