After NCAA sanctions, Tech basketball team envisions ‘Cinderella story’

Georgia Tech center James Banks has a vision for the season. It includes the Yellow Jackets winning far more games than most expect.

“I feel like if we earn that spot to the NCAA (tournament) and we’re winning games, I feel like that’ll put pressure on the NCAA to make the right decision on what they’ll do with us,” Banks said Tuesday at the ACC’s Operation Basketball media event.

The “right decision” Banks referenced would be an overturn of the postseason ban that the NCAA’s infractions committee gave out two weeks ago for Tech’s rules violations, along with four years of recruiting and scholarship restrictions.

“In my mind, winning cures everything,” Banks said.

» MORE: James Banks gracious in light of NCAA ban

As Banks and guard Michael Devoe (along with coach Josh Pastner) met with media in Charlotte, both spoke with optimism and enthusiasm in the wake of the ban. They offered their lofty expectations for the season and their hopes for Tech’s likely appeal of the postseason ban to be successful. Devoe went so far as to paint a picture of the ban being overturned, followed by the Jackets getting in the NCAA tournament and advancing to the Final Four, which will be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, about two miles from campus.

“It’s a story,” Devoe said. “A team that wasn’t supposed to go to the tournament goes to the tournament and (the Final Four) is at home. It’s a perfect story. It’s like a Cinderella story.”

Perhaps even Cinderella’s fairy godmother might question her capacity to summon such an outcome, as the Jackets have had back-to-back losing seasons and haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2010. In the first moments after Tech players learned of the ban, they weren’t so sure themselves.

“You get kind of shocked,” Devoe said. “Like, wow, we really can’t go to the tournament.”

Players expressed their disappointment on messages in a group text, Banks said.

“First thing when it’s something like this, it’s always like, is this real?” Banks said.

But disbelief and disappointment gave way to hope and resolve. Before practice Sept. 26, the day that the sanctions were announced, athletic director Todd Stansbury gave what Pastner described Tuesday as a powerful and captivating message to the team.

Banks said that Stanbury told the team “that he was on our side, he was behind coach Pastner and that he was going to do everything in his power to allow us to play in the postseason this year.”

Given the events of the day, Pastner gave players the option not to practice. The team’s response, according to Pastner: “Coach, what are you talking about? We want to get on the floor and compete.”

Devoe and Banks said that practice quality has improved since the sanctions were announced.

“I feel like this adds fuel to our fire,” Devoe said. “A lot of people are talking about us, they don’t think we’re going to make it and things like that, but I think we’re going to shock a lot of people this year.”

Recent history would suggest that the likelihood of Tech winning its appeal is low. Banks said he'll just focus on his part and leave the appeal work to Tech's administration.

“Let’s get better,” he said. “Let’s win games. Let’s shock people. Let’s be in the media every day. Let’s beat such-and-such in the ACC, let’s beat somebody else again. Let’s be a ranked team this year. And then what?

“People will want to see us play (in the NCAA tournament),” he continued. “At the end of the day, if we’re losing, it doesn’t matter anyway, so let’s make it matter by winning.”

Despite recent history, there is reason to hope in an ascension. The Jackets return the core of last year’s team, which, while finishing 14-18, ranked 43rd nationally in defensive efficiency. To that prowess, the Jackets have added offensive firepower in two transfers, guard Bubba Parham (the leading scorer in the Southern Conference while at VMI) and guard/forward Jordan Usher, a high-motor wing player from USC whom Devoe described as “probably one of the most unselfish guys we have.” Further, Devoe and Banks attested to the development that returnees have made in the offseason. Devoe has added 10 pounds of muscle going into his sophomore season. Banks has honed his shooting with his left (off) hand.

“I feel like this is our year that it’s going to go in the basket,” said Devoe, following two seasons in which the Jackets have finished in the bottom 10 percentile in Division I in 3-point shooting percentage. “We’ve put in too much work for it not to.”

Said Banks, “I think we’re one of the best teams in the ACC.”

It would indeed be quite a story, one that college basketball fans could latch on to and support. Could such a season sway the NCAA’s infractions appeals committee?

Count Devoe and Banks as believers in the power of a good story (and perhaps the influence of media pressure).

“I feel as if we’re one of those top-10 (teams) at the end of the season, we’ll be able to get in,” Devoe said.

“It adds a little flavor to the ‘30 for 30,’” said Banks, referring to the ESPN documentary series, suggesting the 2019-20 Jackets will someday merit their own page in history. “I’m not sure what the name of it’s going to be, but it’s going to be a good one.”