MILWAUKEE — Sure, that whole cell phone thing may be helping, but the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets contend their NCAA tournament run — and the tight-knit cohesion it has seemingly brought with it — was months in the making.
What might seem to the outside eye as an abrupt about-face that started nearly two weeks ago goes much further than that, players said. This new sense of team chemistry, team belief and team success started well beyond the start of the ACC tournament, and it began with some of the darkest moments the Yellow Jackets have experienced together.
“(It was) when people realized it was getting close to the end. When people were doubting us, had us on the (NCAA tournament) bubble at certain points,” Georgia Tech guard Moe Miller said. “We know — we practice against each other every day — we know we’re better than what we (were) showing.”
Just what were they showing for 30 regular-season games?
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After a year marred by a 7-9 conference record, an up-and-down fanaticism with the team’s head coach and his social media skills and a pair of tough losses immediately heading into postseason play, very little looked good and promising about the end of the Yellow Jackets’ year. And they knew it.
“Now, early in the year, it was challenging. Let me tell you, it was challenging,” head coach Paul Hewitt said shaking his head Friday night from a podium at the Bradley Center. “We talked about shot selection and commitment to defense throughout the whole 35 seconds of the possession, fouling too much.”
In a nutshell, his time was spent mostly dousing on-court fires he believed probably should never have been started in the first place.
But now, six games into postseason play and a suddenly popular new phone policy later, all of those struggles have become a forgotten pile of ash swept underneath the proverbial rug.
Leading Georgia Tech into its first second-round NCAA tournament game since 2005, Hewitt is hopeful his 10th-seeded Yellow Jackets will continue their winning ways this afternoon when they take on No. 2 Ohio State.
He has complete faith they will, because, in his opinion, for the better part of two months, they have played in just that manner.
“About 10 games to go — and our record doesn’t reflect it — I really felt like this team was starting to play good basketball,” Hewitt said.
The game that was 10 contests away from season’s end was Georgia Tech’s 98-50 walloping at home of Kentucky State.
While the scoreboard told the tale of a dominant win, it was the Yellow Jackets’ reaction to postgame comments made by Kentucky State head coach and former Georgia Tech backup Clarence Moore that was the key.
“I don’t see a leader out there,” said Moore, the Yellow Jackets’ sixth man during their 2004 Final Four run, during the postgame news conference. “Right now, I think that guy is still trying to find himself. But you have to have a vocal leader. You have to have a guy that’s going to be willing to get on guys and know that he’s going to catch it at some point in time, too, down the line.”
Senior D’Andre Bell, who had shared private conversations with Moore and other recent Georgia Tech basketball alums before the Kentucky State game, was troubled by Moore’s analysis.
“Honestly, I was just trying to look at what standpoint (Moore and others) were coming from, and what they meant by that,” Bell said. “I asked Coach (Hewitt) and all (Moore) meant was he was he just wanted me to be more vocal and not only lead by example.
“There’s certain times in the game that you need to make plays, and then there’s certain times in the game where you have to constantly talk to your guys and know who you can talk to by screaming at and who you have to talk to calmly so we can get the best play from each player.”
For junior forward Gani Lawal, the talk from Moore was somewhat alarming and came unexpectedly.
“I didn’t like that statement that he said. If that was his opinion, that was his opinion, but I didn’t feel it was true,” Lawal said. “We had and have leadership in place on this team, or else we wouldn’t be right here.”
If you dare, pair those beliefs with the news last week that players decided to give up their phones before the ACC tournament and this weekend’s first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, and it would appear the focus Bell and Lawal believed their team long had has come to the surface fully.
Hewitt has said the cell phone idea was originally his and was presented to players going into the ACC tournament in hopes they would talk to one another more during tournament down time, instead of living in their own fractured worlds.
That mission apparently has been accomplished.
After streaking to three straight wins before losing a four-point heartbreaker in the conference tournament final to Duke, the Yellow Jackets have built a momentum they do not believe will escape them. The miscues and bad habits that led to their previous losing conference record have disappeared, guard Iman Shumpert said.
“As the season progresses and we get tighter as a group, those mistakes will start to flesh out,” Shumpert said.
Part of it, he continued, was the result of “defensive pride.”
“We mess up on the offensive end, and we finally get a huddle, and in the huddle it’s — either it’s Dre (Bell), Zach (Peacock), me or Gani (Lawal saying), ‘Stop and a rebound, stop and a rebound,’ ” Shumpert said. “Early in the season (in those huddles) we sort of talked about the mistake and now it’s like, ‘Look, now they can’t score on us.’ ”
Similar in-game cohesion was no more evident than during the semifinals of the ACC tournament when freshman forward Derrick Favors was fouled hard by N.C. State’s Javier Gonzalez, who sent Favors to the floor by pulling hard at his jersey.
Before Favors could even get to his feet, his other four teammates in the game got in Gonzalez’s face and roared at the Wolfpack with designs of protecting their young teammate.
“It just took time to get the chemistry right,” Lawal said. “We had our ups and downs, butt heads, what have you. But we’re at the point right now where we’re clicking, and at this time of the year you have to be playing your best basketball, and I think we are.”
Then, perhaps as eloquently as it can be said in this step-by-step-taking time of year, Lawal said of the latest goal, “Right now, it’s Ohio State.”