Milwaukee – For no apparent reason, a Georgia Tech fan stood in the Bradley Center on Friday and, during pregame warm-ups, exhorted the Jackets by yelling, “History!” Turns out the guy was just premature.
History wasn’t on the line in Round 1 — No. 10 seeds oust No. 7’s all the time — but it will be Sunday. And it’s not history of the NCAA tournament factoid sort; it’s history as in memory, in legacy. If the Jackets lose tomorrow, we’ll recall them as a team that flirted with its potential but didn’t quite deliver. If it wins, everything changes.
If the Jackets win, we won’t much care that they were 7-9 in the ACC and were swept by Florida State and finished the regular season with consecutive losses. We’ll see them as a team that took its time learning how to play but one that, at the last possible moment, aced the final exam. We’ll see this as the second-best team of Paul Hewitt’s tenure, the team that reminded us — at a time when we’d all but forgotten — that this coach is more than a man with a golden contract.
The Jackets who were 20 minutes from missing the Big Dance stand 40 minutes from the Midwest Regional semis in St. Louis. They won’t be favored against Ohio State — then again, they weren’t favored against Oklahoma State on Friday — but they’ll have much in their favor.
They’re bigger than this OSU. (Let’s face it: Tech’s bigger than just about anybody.) They’re deeper. They have a guard in Iman Shumpert who defused Big 12 player of the year James Anderson of Oklahoma State in Round 1, and as it happens the Buckeyes’ best player also is a tall guard. His name: Evan Turner.
More than matchups, there’s also this: The team that Hewitt has described as “snakebit” during its regular season has played five close games in nine days and won four. The Jackets beat Maryland on a night they generated more turnovers than hoops. They beat North Carolina after trailing by 10 at the half. They beat Oklahoma State without scoring a basket in the final eight minutes. They are, as the saying goes, finding a way.
Forget snakebit. There’s a growing sense that these Jackets are coalescing in a way Hewitt’s finest team did. Tech reached the 2004 Final Four by winning five games that could have been lost in the final minute. Back then it was Jarrett Jack and Will Bynum making outrageous shots and everyone defending. There’s no Jack or Bynum on this roster, but the defense has been similarly unyielding.
“This is no slap on Ohio State,” Gani Lawal said Saturday, “but the way our defense has been we feel like we can stop anybody, even the player of the year.”
To stop now would leave potential unmet. The Jackets didn’t convene in October hoping to slip into the NCAA tournament as a 10th seed and leave after the first weekend. “We did have expectations of how good we could be,” Zachery Peacock said. “And now we’re becoming a unit. We’re all working together.”
They are. But our lasting view of these Jackets will turn on what happens, or doesn’t happen, against the Buckeyes and Evan Turner. “If we win, and we do plan to win, we can get a lot of people riding behind us,” Peacock said. “I guess you could could them ‘haters’. We can win a lot of people over.”
At stake Sunday: A berth in the Sweet Sixteen and the biggest NCAA upset ever posted by a Tech team, but for these Jackets there’s something even more essential at play. They can validate themselves. They can turn haters into fans. They can rewrite their chapter of history.