Against expectation, Tech playing meaningful game in mid-February

Georgia Tech guard Corey Heyward steals against the Southern Jaguars in an NCAA college basketball game at McCamish Pavilion on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/
Georgia Tech guard Corey Heyward steals against the Southern Jaguars in an NCAA college basketball game at McCamish Pavilion on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/

A sellout crowd awaits, as does a vaunted opponent and a Hall of Fame coach. And, for that matter, so do heavy implications for Georgia Tech’s NCAA tournament hopes.

The Yellow Jackets’ Sunday matchup against Syracuse at McCamish Pavilion is, against anyone’s expectations at the start of the season, a fairly big deal. It could be argued that Tech has not had a home game this meaningful this late in the season since the 2009-10 season, the last time the Jackets reached the NCAA tournament.

“Coach (Josh Pastner) always tells us each game is big, but I think these next couple games, the home stretch, is very key for us,” guard Justin Moore said.

At 15-11 overall and 6-7 in the ACC, Tech needs to score as many wins as it can to get into the picture for a tournament berth. A win over Syracuse (RPI: 78), a team likewise trying to play its way into the tournament, would be particularly helpful. Through Friday’s games, the Jackets were two back of Syracuse in RPI rankings at 80. Improving at least into the 60s would be ideal.

“You try not to think about it too much, but it’s there in the back of our heads,” guard Corey Heyward said of playing for the NCAA tournament.

Pastner said he studied the selection process during his seven years as head coach at Memphis and back to his time as an assistant at Arizona. He has discerned a win total that he thinks will be good enough to get into the tournament, but declined to reveal it.

“To even be considered at this point is a modern miracle, but Sunday’s not do-or-die,” Pastner said. “We need to win multiple games if we want to be in the NCAA tournament. It’s as simple as that.”

CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm said last week that finishing the regular season at 19-12 would put Tech in solid position but that 18-13 would be dangerous territory. After Sunday, the Jackets finish with N.C. State, a road game at Notre Dame, home against Pitt and finally at Syracuse.

“I’m telling you, we can play well and go 0-5,” Pastner said. “We weren’t horrible against Miami (in a loss Wednesday). It is what it is. So we also can be 5-0 in this next five.”

Coached by Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim, Syracuse (16-11, 8-6) has lost two in a row and hasn’t played since Monday. The Orange excel at making 3-pointers (fourth in the ACC at 3-point percentage at 38.4 percent), taking care of the ball (26th nationally in assists per field goal, according to KenPom) and disrupting offenses (first in the ACC in steals and fourth in blocked shots). Guard Andrew White has scored 20 or more points in the past seven games, playing every minute of each of those games.

As has been the case this season across the conference, the Orange have had a tough time on the road; they’re 2-5 in ACC games away from Syracuse.

Tech will play before its third sellout crowd of the season. The Jackets have not had three sellouts of McCamish Pavilion since the arena’s opening season, 2012-13. The game is being marketed as a whiteout. Further, Lethal Weapon 3, Tech’s famed trio of Kenny Anderson, Brian Oliver and Dennis Scott, will be on hand to sign autographs and to be honored during the game.

“I think it’ll be intense,” Heyward said. “We’ll see how these practices go, but sellout (crowd) — we get our energy from our fans, so it’ll be fun.”

After both forward Quinton Stephens and center Ben Lammers missed practice with ankle injuries and then were limited in the team’s loss to Miami, both were expected to take part in practice and be in better health for Sunday.

The Jackets will play Syracuse again in the final regular-season game March 4. The games will likely weigh heavily in both teams’ NCAA fates. That would have been incongruent thinking in October, when Tech was picked to finish 14th in the ACC.

The season has so enveloped Pastner that he said he needs to be reminded by his wife, father and others of what the team has accomplished.

“But when you really step back, to even be sitting here on Feb. 17 and we’re talking about that if we win multiple games down the stretch, we’ve got a chance to be in the NCAA tournament — from where we started from, what people had said — is nothing short of amazing, and I really mean that,” he said.

The Jackets have the opportunity to kick up the amazement another notch Sunday.

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