In the world of sports’ postseasons, the NIT is not viewed with reverence. It’s somewhere north of a participation trophy, south of the NCAA Tournament.
Think of it as a taco stand with a buy-one/get-one-free offer. You may not drive 10 miles out of your way for it but if you’re in the neighborhood and you’re really hungry — oh, you’re there. And probably dressing up the experience for recruits later.
But the NIT seems better than that for Georgia Tech.
What was expected to be a dreadful season strangely morphed into an interesting one, with a handful of major upsets, including one of North Carolina. They hit 20 wins. They opened the NIT by beating Indiana, which then fired coach Tom Crean. Tech players may have been as upset as those on every other team who were left out of the NCAA field, but what has separated them from many who had to settle for the NIT is they’re actually playing like they want to be here.
That’s a good sign for Tech this week. It’s a good sign for coach Josh Pastner. It’s a good sign for Tech’s future.
The Jackets face Cal State Bakersfield on Tuesday night in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden. The game will be played in the same arena where South Carolina upset Baylor and Florida last week to, against all rational projections, reach its first Final Four in history.
Naturally, some Tech players couldn’t help but wonder if the Gamecocks’ sudden and implausible rise has created some positive foreshadowing for their own future.
“When I was young, I always liked watching the tournament for the Cinderella story,” junior center Ben Lammers said. “That’s why it was a little disappointing when we couldn’t get in this year. I don’t know if could’ve done what South Carolina has done and we would’ve been an 11 or 12 seed probably But it would’ve been a fun experience just to have that chance.
“Being on the same court, maybe we can absorb some of that energy that they had.”
We know one thing about Pastner: He can sell. He sold his players on his way of doing things fairly quickly. He sold them on the benefits of winning NIT games.
“I told them we needed to validate our season. We needed to show that it wasn’t a fluke,” he said.
Lammers, freshman guard Josh Okogie and guard Tadric Jackson all will return next season. Tech has a chance to be pretty good if Pastner can bring in a transfer or two to strengthen the front line and add some needed depth.
But his success at Tech ultimately will hinge on how effectively he can sell to recruits. The major test of his regime will come with the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes. In his words, “It’s been a good year. But we’re not nearly out of the woods yet.”
To get there means making inroads in Atlanta’s AAU scene, often the underbelly of college basketball recruiting.
“Josh will be OK because he’s a hustler,” said Cal State Bakersfield coach Rod Barnes, the former Georgia State and Ole Miss coach who was exposed to Atlanta summer basketball when he worked in the South. “He’s an in-the-trenches kind of guy to me. There’s a lot of stuff you’ve got to deal with over there (in AAU). I told him he’s just got to do what he knows best. It’s a tough, tough area to try to get inside with that scene. But Josh will work it because I’ve seen him work it before. They’re just going to have to give him some time.”
Pastner was given a six-year contract. That qualifies as “some time.”
Okogie said he was “pretty demoralized” when Tech lost to Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament, which eliminated any lingering hope of getting into the NCAA Tournament. That’s when Pastner began selling his team on the potential benefits of the NIT.
Winning this tournament doesn’t guarantee future success for a coach or a program. Johnny Dawkins is evidence of that. The former Stanford coach won two NIT titles but was fired because he made it into the NCAA field just once in eight years (a Sweet 16 appearance in 2014). Now he coaches Central Florida, which plays in the other NIT semi against TCU
But Okogie believes this season bodes well for Tech next year.
“I feel like we’re just building a culture this season and this experience is going to pay off next year,” he said. “Before the season, Coach Pastner was telling the team he thought this year college basketball would be kind of weird. He said there would be some elite teams like UNC and Kentucky and some others but other than those teams, any team could be beaten if you outworked them. As the season progressed, we saw a lot of upsets. When we beat North Carolina, it kind of proved the coach’s point.”
Lammers echoed those sentiments: “With guys coming in and some core guys coming back, I think we’ll be pretty dangerous next year.”
Lammers has been the surprise player on the surprise team. He averaged 3.6 points and four rebounds off the bench last season. This year as a starter: 14.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and he ranked second in the nation with 117 blocks.
“When I started doing research on Georgia Tech, I was like, ‘Who the hell is this guy? Where did he come from?’” Barnes said, laughing. “I really hadn’t studied them at all before this tournament. I talked to (former Tech assistant) Chad (Dollar) and he told me they thought he’d be pretty good but I’m not sure they realized he would be this good.”
Now Lammers and Tech get to play for something, even if that something often is ignored this time of year.
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