Final Four revisited: Georgia Tech’s grueling ACC schedule before title run

Will Bynum played for Georgia Tech and was a member of the 2004 team that advanced to the national championship game. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Credit: Brian Bahr

Credit: Brian Bahr

Will Bynum played for Georgia Tech and was a member of the 2004 team that advanced to the national championship game. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, a Georgia Tech men’s basketball team captured the hearts of its fans and exhilarated a city with a run to the 2004 national championship game, played April 5, 2004.

This is the second of a three-part series looking back on that team’s storied run to the Final Four in San Antonio as told by the players, coaches and other members of a team whose success has not since been matched at Tech.

Today’s installment revisits the Yellow Jackets’ conference season ahead of making the 2004 NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection. Tech went 9-7 in league play, a mark that included a win at Duke in March that ended the Blue Devils’ 41-game home winning streak, and finished tied for third in a nine-team conference. The Jackets went 1-1 in the ACC tournament.

The 2003-04 ACC included a Duke team with Chris Duhon and JJ Reddick, a Wake Forest squad that featured Chris Paul and a North Carolina roster that had Sean May and Rashad McCants.

Coach Paul Hewitt: “Everybody (in the ACC) was tough. The second game (against an opponent) is always more interesting because somebody’s trying to avenge a loss and the other team’s trying to figure out a way to beat ‘em again. It was challenging. Maryland had just come off winning the NCAA championship two years before. So, yeah, it was a grind. It was an absolute grind. But the good thing about it, if you’re able to survive it, when you get out of the league the NCAA Tournament tends to be a little bit easier.”

Forward Isma’il Muhammad: “I don’t think it was debatable, (the ACC) was the best conference in the country at that time. We knew that even if we dropped a game or two, our confidence never wavered because we knew night in and night out we were competing against the very best teams in the entire country. As the ebbs and flows went through a season, we always remained confident. It literally never wavered. And I think that’s what was special about the coaching staff, the players, the support staff – we all believed in each other.”

Assistant coach Dean Keener: “Gauntlet’s the best word to use. We broke out 12-0 and lost at Georgia and then, I believe, lost a week later at Carolina. But we never sensed any cracks in the armor. You could tell that this team was good. They shared the ball. They played the right way. The go-to guy was the open man. (Hewitt) did a really nice job of making sure everybody knew their role.”

Guard B.J. Elder: “It was just a tough conference. During that time I tell the guys on the team here now, the difference in the league that I was in and now is the guys that are now one-and-done guys were in their sophomore, junior, senior years a lot of times. It was a tough league. Each game was its own game and tough to win.”

Center Luke Schenscher “I have a very clear memory of going into Cameron Indoor and playing Duke when they were on a 40-something home game winning streak. We beat them comfortably in the end. It was the first time we had beaten Duke since I was at GT and sitting in the locker room after the game I remember thinking, ‘Geez we are pretty bloody good. There are not too many teams that could do that.’ That’s when I first started thinking we had potential to go deep into the tournament if we got the chance.”

Guard Marvin Lewis: “As an administrator now, I talk to a lot of our student-athletes about just how long the season is and that you gotta push through the ups and downs and, obviously, celebrate the highs. But you wanna stay pretty even because it’s a long season. What I will say is even in those moments where we might have lost two in a row or might have been struggling, there was never any doubt in our ability, never any doubt in what this team could do. I think that exemplified itself in us beating Duke at Cameron. That was another moment that said, ‘We can do this and we can do this at a really high level.’ "

Radio play-by-play Wes Durham: “The team’s collective connectivity was really fun. It was a really fun team to be around. They went through some highs and lows. They had a two-game losing streak in the ACC where they lost at home to NC State and then there was some question, ‘How would they get in the NCAA Tournament?’ Then the win at Duke at the end of the year to break Duke’s long win streak at home, that was a huge deal, too.”

Schenscher: “The overall main feeling I remember from that year was that it felt like we were just as happy for our teammates’ success as we were for our own. We understood that the success of the team was the most important thing for us and our success over individual success.”

Part 1: “We got a chance to do something really special here.”

Part 3: “It still hurts.”