Georgia State aims, Georgia and Georgia Tech strain for NCAA tourney bid

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner bangs on the scorers table trying to get his team's attention during a 78-74 loss to Notre Dame Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.
Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner bangs on the scorers table trying to get his team's attention during a 78-74 loss to Notre Dame Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

I always wish for the state’s teams to dance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. I know locals will never embrace it like a lifelong fan from Louisville. But I’ve seen what can happen when there’s a rooting interest here for March Madness, the best thing on the U.S. sports calendar.

That’s why I’m always holding out hope that the state’s teams will make the tourney. With the notable and appreciated exception of Georgia State, I’m usually let down. This season I hung my hopes on Georgia and Georgia Tech breaking through in a relatively weak year for the ACC and SEC. I guess I’ll never learn.

We’re nearly two weeks into February and Georgia Tech (11-13, 5-8 ACC) and Georgia (12-11, 2-8 SEC) aren’t near the NCAA tournament bubble. Kudos to Georgia State for having a real chance to earn an automatic bid for the third consecutive year. Maybe the Panthers again can provide some March Moments if the Bulldogs and Jackets don’t.

Remember when Georgia State crashed the 2015 Big Dance and then-coach Ron Hunter crashed his chair celebrating a victory over Baylor? That was a year after Mercer conquered Duke in 2014. That's two more recent NCAA memories than Tech, which hasn't made the tourney since winning a game there in 2010. Georgia's tourney drought dates to 2015, and it last won there in 2002 (a victory later vacated by the NCAA).

In January I made a case for Tech's chances to make it back. The Jackets promptly lost close games to Virginia and Louisville. I did the same with the Bulldogs a couple of weekends ago, and they went on to blow big leads in losses at Florida and vs. Alabama. Those were doses of reality that, even with an unusually egalitarian Dance on the horizon, the Jackets and Bulldogs will have to strain for an invite.

The Panthers (16-9, 9-5 Sun Belt) have a better shot to make it. They are tied with Georgia Southern for second in the league with six games to play. Finishing in the top two is crucial because those teams get byes to the conference tourney semifinal in New Orleans. Ken Pomeroy's projections have GSU finishing second.

Tech and Georgia have a tougher climb. It would be a huge upset if either won their respective conference tourneys. They have a lot of work to just to enter the picture for an at-large bid.

Before Tuesday's games the Yellow Jackets were No. 80 in the NET rankings that are used by the tournament selection committee. The Bulldogs were No. 90. The lowest-seeded at-large team in the 2019 tournament, St. John's, was NET No. 73. That the Jackets still are close to that cut-off is evidence of the parity I mentioned.

The problem for Tech is that, per the NET rankings, it has as many bad losses (vs. Ball State) as good victories (at N.C. State). (The bigger issue, a postseason ban by the NCAA, is on hold as Tech appeals.) The Jackets need more quality wins over their final seven games before the ACC tourney, where they’ve been one-and-done in each of coach Josh Pastner’s previous three seasons.

The Jackets have an opportunity for a big win when Louisville (NET No. 7) comes to McCamish Pavilion on Wednesday. Tech gave the Cards a game in Louisville before succumbing 68-64. The Jackets have one other chance for what’s likely to be a “Quad 1” victory, Feb. 22 at Syracuse.

Tech can earn what should be “Quad 2” victories at Wake Forest and Clemson. Tech is likely to be favored at home against Clemson, Miami and Pittsburgh. Beating one of Louisville or Syracuse and four of the other five would leave Tech 16-15, 10-10 in the ACC at the end of the regular season with two more quality victories.

Pomeroy’s model projects the Jackets to lose four of their last seven. But the predicted losing margins are all one or two possessions. With a little luck, maybe the Jackets can grind their way to some unexpected victories on the strength of their good defense.

I’m also trying to stay optimistic about the Bulldogs. Like Tech, they also have one “Quad 1” victory. Unlike Tech, they have multiple chances to earn more before the postseason: at home vs. Auburn and at South Carolina and LSU. “KenPom” predicts the Bulldogs will lose those three games plus two others.

Georgia isn’t great at any one thing. It has a great talent in guard Anthony Edwards, who could be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. Edwards showed against Texas A&M and Florida that he can take over games by scoring, rebounding and defending. He was feeling ill against Alabama last weekend but still filled up the stat sheet.

“Ant Man” can carry the Bulldogs for a spell. They need more than that — their defense and rebounding come and go — but it’s no small thing for Georgia to have the SEC’s best pro prospect. Now if the Bulldogs can just hold on to leads.

For now, Georgia State is the area’s best bet to be a part of March Madness. Maybe Georgia and Georgia Tech can find a way to make it, too. Despite years of letdowns, I can’t help but hope.

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