Milwaukee – Elbows on knees, a scowling Iman Shumpert bent forward in his chair. Someone asked if Ohio State was better than Georgia Tech. “Not at all,” Shumpert said.
So: Was Tech better than Ohio State? Said Shumpert, almost spitting the words: “A lot better.”
Judge these teams 1-10 and there’s no comparison. Brad Sheehan, Tech’s 10th man, was pressed into service Sunday and contributed a three-point play. Ohio State deployed only seven men, and its two reserves worked a total of 13 minutes. (Brian Oliver, Tech’s eighth man, played 16.) But college basketball isn’t a draft lottery, and it isn’t a beauty contest. It’s a matter of what coach can take talent and mold it into a team.
Paul Hewitt spoke this season of his Jackets having a “high ceiling.” They altered our perception of them as rank underachievers with a stirring run in the ACC tournament and a Round 1 NCAA dismissal of Oklahoma State, but in the end that ceiling remained untouched. This team took Hewitt back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2007, but with three McDonald’s All-Americans was that the ultimate goal? Just to make an appearance?
Said D’Andre Bell: “We were inconsistent. At certain points we showed how great we can be.”
A great team would have beaten Ohio State on Sunday. As strange as it sounds, there was a clear imbalance of talent between the No. 2 seed and the No. 10. Tech had the three best big men this day, and yet Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors got called for the fouls that changed the game. Jacket fans will complain forever about the officiating, but here’s the thing: With no Ohio State post presence to defend, Tech’s post players still fouled. How? Why?
The Buckeyes left the door open almost all game: They fell eight points behind early and gave back 11 points off a 15-point lead late, and they missed six free throws and made 18 turnovers (to Tech’s 21). Evan Turner scored 24 points but needed 19 shots to do it, and his nine rebounds and nine assists were undercut by nine turnovers.
But Tech didn’t lead over the final 22 1/2 minutes because it could never punish the Buckeyes, who essentially start four guards, and when the Jackets’ offense crumbled the game became a flurry of Ohio State fast breaks and transition treys. If it wasn’t easy for the Buckeyes, it was never as hard as it coulda/shoulda been.
So much awaited Tech if it could have upset Ohio State. The Midwest Regional would then have been without its No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds, and nobody in St. Louis — not even Michigan State — would have matched the Jackets on manpower. Asked if Tech could have reached the Final Four, Derrick Favors said: “I think we could have. But we ended up losing this game.”
Thus do we take our leave of the most gifted team in Institute annals. If its legacy won’t be of utter failure — it did reach the ACC finals and win a game in the Big Dance, both accomplishments Tech hadn’t managed since 2005 — neither did it approach its potential. It finished seventh in a diluted ACC, seventh with a losing conference record. It lost to Georgia. It made the NCAA as a 10th seed and was gone on the first weekend.
Said Hewitt: “We got to the [NCAA] tournament, and that’s a really major accomplishment. I think our guys played really hard and were really unlucky at times, but their effort never wavered. We had a great year.”
Then, perhaps realizing he’d oversold his case, Hewitt said: “A very good year.”
Actually, it was neither. It was a B-minus season. If losing 13 games with Favors and Lawal and Shumpert is a “great” — or a “very good” — year, standards need to be recalibrated. Hewitt can and will endeavor to put the sunniest of faces on this season, but the empty looks in his locker room Sunday told a different story.
The Jackets knew how much they had and how far they might have gone. Sad to say, this team of vast promise was done playing before it really got going.