“Life Saver gummies,” Terry echoed, perhaps lending an insight into the preferred sugar delivery mechanism of 3-point gunners. “I get chocolate milk a lot.”
After the sugar rush, though, the Jackets were onto a far more pressing engagement – making a run at the ACC Tournament. A month ago, such a thought would have been laughable for the Jackets, who were 1-12 in league play with nine consecutive losses after a 72-64 loss at N.C. State on Feb. 4. After Saturday’s game, Tech coach Josh Pastner likened it to having come to rest at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
In the four weeks since, though, Tech has been on a tear with a 5-2 record in its final seven league games. Pastner has trimmed his rotation to six players and tweaked schemes. His perimeter players have found the range from beyond the 3-point arc. The Jackets envision themselves as potential troublemakers in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“I just think we’re getting hot at the right time,” Kelly said. “I think that’s what it’s about. We’re jelling at the right time. We’ve just got to keep it going.”
The No. 13 seed, the Jackets will start with No. 12 seed Florida State on Tuesday in the opening game of the first round (2 p.m., ACC Network). The winner of that game will face No. 5 seed Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Should the Jackets surpass the Seminoles and Panthers, No. 4 seed Duke would be their quarterfinal opponent Thursday.
After the game at Conte Forum, Jackets players were asking guard Kyle Sturdivant about playing at the Greensboro Coliseum, where he and his teammates cut down the nets two years ago after the team’s first ACC championship since 1993.
“I was like, ‘Man, going into that gym’s going to bring back a lot of good memories,’” Sturdivant said. “Why not? Why not do it?”
Sturdivant, who scored five points off the bench in the Jackets’ title-game win over Florida State, is taking confidence in far more than nostalgia.
The Jackets have without question played better in their final seven ACC games of the regular season (and eight total, including a Feb. 18 win over Division II Florida Tech), redirecting the course of their season in remarkable fashion.
“Just really proud of our guys,” Pastner said. “Beyond proud of them.”
In the last seven ACC games, they averaged 76.7 points per game after scoring 61.4 per game in the first 13. Tech allowed 70.4 points per game in the final seven ACC games of the regular season compared with 74.8 in the first 13. Assist/turnover ratio: 1.0 in the first 13, 1.9 in the final seven.
Kelly has hit at least five 3-pointers in the past four games, the first Tech player to have such a streak since Lewis Clinch in the 2008-09 season. Forward Ja’von Franklin, Terry and Sturdivant are playing their best of the season and perhaps their careers.
Pastner has found answers with a six-man rotation, a smaller lineup, some adjustments to the offensive and defensive schemes, and changes to the practice regimen.
“I think just a little of everything,” Pastner said. “Just finding who we are. We’ve had to reinvent, shorten the rotation and play a little differently.”
The tournament will provide Tech with the chance to add meaning to the strong finish to the regular season. Even with the vast improvement, the Jackets – picked to finish last in the 15-team ACC before the season – still ended up in 13th, and their record is 14-17 overall and 6-14 in the league. Their NET ranking as of Sunday morning was No. 176.
In Greensboro, a couple wins could demonstrate that this team is more than that.
“I think we’re playing as well as anybody in the league, and our guard play has been great, and guys have gotten better,” Pastner said.
It’s not unreasonable to envision the Jackets getting into the quarterfinal with two wins, first over Florida State on Tuesday and then Pitt on Wednesday, and making one final case for Pastner’s uncertain future with the team.
Florida State handled the Jackets in their lone regular-season meeting, a 75-64 defeat in Tallahassee, Florida, on Jan. 7. The Seminoles have advantages of size and depth, but have also lost nine of their past 11, including back-to-back double-digit losses to end the season. The Jackets, who’ve shot 42.7% from 3-point range in the past three games (41-for-96), could be able to apply their own strength. After Saturday’s games, FSU was 342nd in Division I in 3-point field-goal defense (37.9%) and in its past five games hasn’t kept an opponent under 42.1%.
Pastner has yet to win a Tuesday game at the ACC Tournament, when the bottom six teams in the league square off – the Jackets are 0-4 in his tenure – but this would seem a game that the Jackets can win. KenPom assigned the Jackets a 58% win probability.
After that would come Pitt, led by likely ACC Coach of the Year Jeff Capel. The Panthers swept the Jackets this season, the more recent game a 76-68 win in Pittsburgh on Feb. 21. Tech was within three points at the three-minute mark in a well-played game but couldn’t pull off the upset. The Panthers lost their final two regular-season games but also will be motivated to get off the NCAA Tournament bubble.
In the loss at Pittsburgh, the Jackets proved to themselves that they could play at the Panthers’ level. They would surely welcome an opportunity on Wednesday to demonstrate it to a larger audience.
“We’ve come together, and we’ve got an opportunity next week in Greensboro to see what we can do,” Pastner said.
In that scenario, the Jackets’ six-man rotation would be a concern, playing a second game in two days while Pitt would be rested. Pastner said guards Deivon Smith and Tristan Maxwell and center Rodney Howard, who did not make the trip to Boston and who all have not played for at least the past four games, most likely will not be in Greensboro. Smith has an ankle injury, and Maxwell and Howard were not feeling well, Pastner said.
“They’ve just got to stay really positive and just know that, when they get tired, they’ve got to dig in, fight through it, get out of their comfort zones,” Pastner said. “I think we’re in great shape to be able to play the minutes that these guys are playing.”
In the event of an upset of Pitt – since the ACC expanded to 15 teams, the 12/13 seed is 3-6 against the No. 5 seed, including wins in each of the past two tournaments – the prize would be No. 4 seed Duke. The Blue Devils, who plastered the Jackets 86-43 Jan. 28 at McCamish Pavilion in easily Tech’s worst game of the season, have won six in a row.
In a Tech-Duke matchup, the Jackets would be at a severe size disadvantage, playing on maxed-out legs, facing a stringent defense and competing in a virtual road environment.
Perhaps worrying about how to beat Duke can wait.
“You’ve got to win the game on Tuesday to have a chance on Wednesday,” Pastner said.