Looking back, ahead for Georgia Tech: Could 4 seniors return?

Georgia Tech tips off with Loyola Chicago at the start of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Friday, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Caption
Georgia Tech tips off with Loyola Chicago at the start of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Friday, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

Credit: AP

INDIANAPOLIS – A satisfying season came to an unsatisfying conclusion and now leaves the question of what happens next for Georgia Tech’s four seniors. Because of the NCAA’s decision to grant fall- and winter-sports athletes with an extra season of eligibility in the next academic year, they have a rare opportunity to extend their college careers into a fifth season of competition.

Forwards Jordan Usher and Moses Wright and guards Jose Alvarado and Bubba Parham were at the core of Tech’s first ACC championship season since 1993. They also experienced the hollow conclusion of the Yellow Jackets’ 71-60 loss Friday to Loyola Chicago in the first round of the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010. Could all four seniors return for more?

“I haven’t thought about that at all,” Usher told the AJC on Wednesday of his own decision. “The seniors, we just decided that we would just talk after the season.”

Asked if he could envision the four making one more run together, Usher was affirmative.

“I think honestly, that’s what it would be,” he said. “It would probably be all or nothing.”

The possibility of “all” is tantalizing – the nucleus of a team that finished 17-9, won the ACC title and boasted the conference’s player of the year (Wright) and defensive player of the year (Alvarado) returning with another year of development under a staff that has clearly demonstrated its capacity to improve players. The Jackets also would welcome a top-20 signing class.

Coach Josh Pastner said he would love for any or all of the players to return, but wants them to make the best decision for themselves.

“They’ve got to make the best decision career-wise, and I will leave it up to them, but I don’t see a downside for them coming back unless you have an opportunity that you can’t pass up,” Pastner told the AJC.

Wright, probably the best NBA prospect of the four, appears to have a shot at being drafted, but is not a sure thing at this time.

“Nothing” also is an obvious possibility. Another season would be no small undertaking – two more semesters at a rigorous institution, a delay of the chance to play professionally and the risk of injury, among other considerations.

Regardless, it speaks to the team’s connectedness that the four seniors would prioritize consulting with each other and even consider making their decision together, regardless of whether they ultimately do. That connection was a strength of this team, particularly at a time when physically sharing close space was, at the least, strongly discouraged.

“That’s a tremendous signal about how strong the culture of our program is,” Pastner said.

After the loss to Loyola, Alvarado said he didn’t have a decision on next year.

“I’ve got to soak everything in with my family, and we’re going to go from there,” he said.

At times in the media session, during which he was overcome with emotion and his voice cracked after possibly having played the last game of his college career, he sounded at times as though he were leaning toward returning (“Who knows? We’re probably coming back here”) and others as though he were prepared to turn the page (“Georgia Tech changed my life. It was one hell of a ride.”).

Whatever happens, the coming-of-age feeling of this season is indelible. After winning six of its final seven games last season to earn Tech’s first winning record in ACC play since the 2003-04 season, the Jackets were bent on making the NCAA Tournament. For Pastner, it was a season of reckoning, as he had long pointed to this season, his fifth, as the one when Tech would finally end its NCAA drought.

Losses to Georgia State and Mercer nearly derailed the attempt before the season’s first week, but the Jackets showed their resilience with an unlikely (at least at the time) win over Kentucky. It was the start of a season when Alvarado gave fits to opponents with his hounding defense and Wright emerged into a dominant force. Usher developed into a savvy passer and efficient scorer to complement his high-grade athletic ability. Coming to Tech via transfer as a prolific 3-point shooter, Parham found numerous ways to contribute. Guard Michael Devoe continued his efficient scoring and developed other elements of his game.

An aggressive defense that ranked ninth in Division I in steals per game after Friday’s games often created scoring chances for a highly efficient offense.

Playing most games with a height disadvantage, the Jackets played with undeniable effort, demonstrated in diving for loose balls and racing downcourt to break up opponent fast breaks. Their joy and selflessness were clear, too, in their willingness to make extra passes and the smiles that broke out midgame.

“It’s just that love and passion we have for each other, I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Usher said.

Those traits helped Tech persevere through the season’s rockiest passages, like the 17-day COVID-19 pause in January, back-to-back heartbreaking road losses at Virginia and Duke and later two more crushing defeats in the span of three days, at home to the Cavaliers and on a last-second banked-in 3-pointer at Clemson, the latter of which left the Jackets at 9-8.

It all set the stage for a ride that Tech fans won’t soon forget. With their fragile tournament hopes barely intact, the Jackets won six consecutive games to reach 15-8, including a cleansing win over Duke to end a 14-game losing streak to the Blue Devils. Wright averaged 23.5 points and 10 rebounds in that stretch, wrapping up ACC player-of-the-year honors, Tech’s first since 1990.

The season peaked with the ACC title-game win over Florida State in Greensboro, N.C., the euphoric cap to a week of uncertainty in which Duke and Virginia pulled out, the latter’s withdrawal enabling Tech to pass through the semifinals to the final. The canceled games, to say nothing of Wright’s positive test in Indianapolis that left the Jackets severely shorthanded against the Ramblers, underscored how Tech and all teams have walked a tightrope since the start of the season.

While Pastner made sure to acknowledge his COVID realities paled in comparison with those faced by so many others, his team’s ability to continue the season as scheduled was challenged three times a week through team-wide testing for the presence of this most contagious virus.

“I can’t tell the overwhelming pressure of trying to pass every COVID test for 5-½ months for everybody,” Pastner said. “Because you see what happens.”

That pressure, relatively speaking, is now off. While earlier than preferred, the Jackets can reflect on a season that will take its distinctive place in team history.

“It was a great year considering everything,” Pastner said. “It was a swing of emotions, that’s for certain, all year long. All the way up to the very last week.”

The pain of the final game can’t blot out the achievement and essence of an extraordinary season.

“I’ve got to say I love my team, I love ‘Mo,’” Alvarado said after the game. “It was one hell of a ride.”

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