Georgia Tech is in the final four of the tournament for which nobody fills out a bracket, but still: If you’re not in the Big Dance, you might as well win the NIT. (Not that the masses remember who wins the NIT. I’ll wait while you try to recall the 2016 champ.)
(Waiting … waiting …)
(Answer: George Washington. Which then fired coach Mike Lonergan after it was reported he’d been verbally abusive of players. The 2016 NIT final featured GW against Valparaiso.)
(Oh, and it was briefly thought last spring that Lonergan might be a candidate for Georgia Tech’s coaching job. Got lucky there, huh?)
Sorry. I digress. Tech, which entered this event having lost five of its past seven games, has played very well in the NIT. It beat Indiana, which fired Tom Crean two days later. It beat Belmont, which had just beaten Georgia. It won at Ole Miss, which had won at Syracuse. As we’ve seen this March, the mighty ACC has had issues against SEC competition. Not Tech, though. It went to Oxford and led throughout.
The Yellow Jackets weren’t quite good enough to make the Big Dance, but they’re making like Fred Astaire in the Sock Hop. There’s no reason they can’t cut down the nets in Madison Square Garden. They’ll next play the winner of UT-Arlington and Cal State Bakersfield. UT-Arlington finished first in the Sun Belt, which is Georgia State’s league, but was blown out in the conference semis by Texas State.
TCU is on the other side of the bracket, and TCU — coached by Jamie Dixon, who left Pittsburgh, which under Kevin Stallings beat Tech in its ACC tournament opener in Brooklyn — collapsed at the end of its regular season. On Feb. 7, the Horned Frogs were 17-7 and surely NCAA-bound. They entered the Big 12 tournament 17-14, where they beat Oklahoma, which was awful a year after reaching the Final Four, and stunned No. 1 Kansas, which was playing without Josh Jackson, its most gifted player. (He’d been suspended for the game.)
TCU will face either Illinois — which is working under an interim coach, having fired John Groce and hired Brad Underwood of Oklahoma State to replace him — or UCF, which is coached by Johnny Dawkins, of whom you’ve heard. If we go by Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, Tech is rated lower than every remaining NIT team save Cal Bakersfield, whose nickname is the Roadrunners and who are coached by Rod Barnes, once the head man at Georgia State.
Then again, Tech was also rated lower than Indiana and Ole Miss. We can all agree that the Jackets have shredded every expectation to reach this stage, and there won’t be anybody in New York they can’t handle. (Possibly including the Nets and Knicks.)
And there’s also this: The ACC sent 12 teams to the NCAA and NIT. Only two are still going. The other is North Carolina. Tech beat Carolina head-to-head. Josh Pastner, king of Tobacco Road!