Georgia Tech celebrates as a long, long streak comes to an end

Georgia Tech's guard Jose Alvarado (10) reacts to the Yellow Jackets' 84-77 win over Syracuse Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech's guard Jose Alvarado (10) reacts to the Yellow Jackets' 84-77 win over Syracuse Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

It was March 3, 1990. On a Saturday afternoon in Atlanta, in his final game at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, Georgia Tech’s Brian Oliver delivered a game to remember, dropping 34 points on No. 20 Clemson to lead the No. 11 Yellow Jackets to an 85-69 win. Playing before a coliseum record crowd of 10,002, Tech clinched a win to secure third place in the ACC with a league record of 8-6, which followed 8-6 finishes in the two previous seasons.

Little could anyone have guessed that that would be the last time that the Jackets posted back-to-back winning seasons for the next three decades. Saturday, Tech ended an almost unthinkable drought by clinching an above-.500 record in league play for the second year in a row with its 84-77 win over Syracuse at McCamish Pavilion. After finishing fifth last season in the ACC at 11-9, Tech is 9-6 in the ACC (13-8 overall) with two regular-season games to go.

Informed Sunday that the 1988-90 teams were the last at Tech to accomplish the feat, the glib coach of those Jackets teams could offer only the briefest of responses:

“Wow,” Bobby Cremins said Sunday.

With much greater command the Tech great shared his delight with the present-day Jackets, who are in seventh place ahead of their Tuesday night matchup with Duke at McCamish.

“I think they’re having a great year,” Cremins told the AJC. “It’s so fun to watch those kids. (Jose) Alvarado should be first-team All-ACC and Moses Wright at least second (team). I knew going in they had experience, and that’s a big factor, but you’ve got to prove it.”

Cremins has followed the team closely, as he has all the Jackets teams since he stepped down from the post in 2000.

Against Virginia Tech, their zone was absolutely sensational, and against Syracuse, they didn’t play one second of zone,” Cremins said. “(Josh Pastner) is mixing it up, but those kids — Alvarado is something. He’s something else. And (Michael) Devoe, he’s got a beautiful stroke. (Jordan) Usher’s a different player from a year ago. He’s playing so much smarter. And Moses Wright is the ultimate overachiever. I hope they’re ready Tuesday night, because you know Duke will be ready, even though they lost (on Saturday).”

Credit: ACC

Tech (13-8, 9-6 ACC) won its fourth consecutive game - 84-77 win over the Orange - to further make its case for the NCAA tournament

Credit: ACC

It has evidently taken such a collection (and the leadership of Pastner and his staff) for the Jackets to end such a staggering streak. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that, from 1990 until last season, Tech only had two winning seasons in ACC play, 1996 and 2004.

Many teams in that span were competitive. Both Cremins and successor Paul Hewitt were often close to capturing more winning ACC records. After 1990, of Cremins’ next six teams, three were 8-8 and one was 13-3. One won the ACC championship (1993), another tied for first in the ACC regular season (1996) and four total went to the NCAA tournament.

In the first eight seasons of Hewitt’s 11-year tenure, the Jackets were no worse than 7-9 seven times, topping out at 9-7 in 2004, when Tech reached the national championship game. Four of Hewitt’s five NCAA trips occurred in that span, including back-to-back trips in 2004 and 2005.

Brian Gregory and Pastner put up back-to-back 8-10 ACC seasons in 2016 and 2017.

Still, the dry spell is — or was — remarkable in its length. In the past five years alone, eight of the other 14 teams in the ACC have posted back-to-back winning ACC seasons.

Among the six others, N.C. State did it in 2012-13, Wake Forest in 2009-10, Clemson in 2008-11 and Boston College in 2006-07. Since joining the ACC prior to the 2013-14 season, Pittsburgh and Syracuse have never achieved consecutive winning seasons in ACC play, but they did carry over above-.500 records in the Big East in 2013 and then had winning records in their first seasons in the ACC in 2014.

For the sake of context, in the SEC, every team in the league has had back-to-back winning records in-conference since 2012-13 (including Missouri, which did it straddling the move from the Big 12 to the SEC).

In other words, Tech’s wait was highly unusual.

While back-to-back winning seasons in conference play is a somewhat arbitrary achievement — NCAA Tournament appearances are a far more significant commodity — they are a mark of consistency in performance and generally go hand in hand with tournament berths.

It would seem a number of factors have prevented Tech over the years. One-and-done players — from Stephon Marbury (1996) to Derrick Favors (2010) — drained the team of impactful talent, as did other players leaving early, either by transfer or to the NBA, such as Jarrett Jack (2005). The inability to recruit at a consistently high level led to talent peaks and valleys.

A wave of expansion — Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame — inserted four highly competitive teams into the league just as Gregory was trying to lift the Jackets off the ground.

But, it might appear, that the five years afforded Pastner have given his team the opportunity, in his oft-repeated phrase, “get old and stay old.” The core of Alvarado, Devoe and Wright is now in its third season together and has improved markedly. Pastner has brought in transfers who have been critical in the team’s rise, including James Banks, Jordan Usher and Bubba Parham. Further, the Jackets have earned their second winning season in a row in ACC play when the schedule and COVID-19 pauses have done them few favors.

“That’s great for the program, and that’s a testament to the players, because the players win games,” Pastner said after the game. “My assistant coaches, my staff, have done an incredible job of game prep, but the players have executed. So all the credit goes the players on that.”

Going back to the last seven games of last season, Tech is 15-7 in ACC play and 19-9 overall.

“I thought Josh had a really good year last year,” Cremins said. “I think that other stuff (recruiting violations and a highly public fallout with a former friend, Ron Bell) is all behind him. And now this was a big year for Josh, and he’s just really, really done well. I think he’s been doing a great job.”

There is far more to accomplish than back-to-back winning records in ACC play, and the achievement will fall flat if the Jackets can’t continue winning. Tech can end a 14-game losing streak to Duke on Tuesday, win its first ACC Tournament game since 2016 and, most notably, get into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.

If nothing else, the Jackets have the support and belief of an old coach.

“I love to see them do well,” Cremins said. “It’s been a tough run. I believe this is an NCAA team. They deserve it.”

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