A return to glory: Georgia Tech wins the ACC title

Josh Pastner arrived in Greensboro having not won a game in any ACC tournament. He’ll leave having won the ACC tournament. Saw that coming, did you?

Georgia Tech opened its season with home losses to Georgia State and Mercer. It will enter the NCAA Tournament not as an at-large team but as automatic qualifier – champion of the league that cares the most about basketball.

Maybe you saw that coming, too. Probably not. But here it is. At blessed last, Georgia Tech is again good. Forget being able to play with anybody. These Yellow Jackets can beat anybody.

Ask Florida State, tall and deep and poised. The Seminoles, who might have won the 2020 NCAA Tournament had it been played, were rattled in Saturday’s ACC final in a way FSU is never rattled. Tech’s defense induced turnovers on the Seminoles’ first four possessions, and that was your ballgame right there. Tech scored 31 points – 15 of them steals – off its opponent’s 25 turnovers.

Even when Florida State surged to a nine-point lead in the second half, it never seemed likely to hold. Tech’s unrelenting ball pressure turned the proud Seminoles into nervous wrecks. As the game wound down, we saw a transformation take hold. The Jackets knew they were the better team. They knew they were going to win. They won 80-75.

Jose Alvarado had five steals, scored 13 points and worked all 40 minutes. He was the inspiration. Michael Devoe made two huge 3-pointers and was named the tournament’s MVP. Moses Wright fought FSU’s many big men to a draw, scoring 15 points and taking eight rebounds. And Jordan Usher, the USC transfer who generally plays a supporting role to GT’s Big Three, scored 15 points, converting both a nerveless tray when FSU had nosed ahead and a majestic baseline dunk that left no doubt who was winning this one.

For long minutes, you wondered where Tech, which had gone 11 years without gracing a game of this magnitude, had found the nerve to be the aggressor from start to finish on such a stage, but about the time of Usher’s dunk the truth hit home. The Jackets mightn’t have played in such a game, but they have, over time, played in so many games together. (According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, this is the nation’s fourth-most-experienced squad.) They trust each other. They trust their coach. They’re ACC champions.

They’ve won eight in a row. They’re as hot as anybody in the land. (Except maybe Gonzaga, which hasn’t lost.) It took Pastner and these guys a while to grow together, and there were times you doubted – and surely they doubted – whether anything would coalesce. But these Jackets fulfilled Pastner’s vision of getting old and staying old, and they’ve found a mesh of such strength that they’ll be a tough out in the next tournament as well.

For four years it didn’t quite happen for Pastner. Now everything is happening. The job and the ACC no longer seem too big for him. On the contrary: At this moment, he has the best-looking team in the league that regards itself as the nation’s best. Tech isn’t big and isn’t all that deep, but it’s quick and assertive, and it can guard anybody. It’s afraid of nobody.

The ACC championship ended the only way it could have ended: Alvarado stole the ball and fed Devoe for yet another runout. Tech outscored Florida State 31-6 on turnovers, 19-4 on fast breaks. Moments later, Pastner was conducting an on-court interview with ESPN when Alvarado rushed into the frame and screamed, “You’re an ACC champion, coach!”

This should have been a shock. Tech was picked to finish ninth in the 15-team league during the ACC’s Operation Basketball in November. Opening with two home losses to mid-majors inspired confidence in no one. (“It was like the world had ended,” Devoe said.) But Tech was different in its ACC season. It beat North Carolina. It beat FSU. It beat Clemson and Syracuse. Heck, It even beat Duke.

“It’s been a journey,” Devoe said Saturday night. “For the team, for me personally, for everybody.”

It has been a journey – from abject mediocrity to glorious relevance. But the journey isn’t done. Tech will take its ACC trophy to Indianapolis for the NCAA Tournament, and it will take a massive effort from an excellent team to halt the locomotive these Jackets have become. They’ve taken the Institute’s first ACC title since 2003. They’re bound for the Dance for the first time since 2010.

“We knew (Florida State) was a great team,” Alvarado said. “We also knew we could beat them.”

Never one to hide his light under a bushel basket, Alvarado entered his postgame Zoom session with a snippet of the sliced net in his cap. He held the game ball with both hands, and he said, “I’m a champ! I’m a champ! I’m a champ!”

He’s a champ. His team’s a champion. His coach is a champion. Maybe nobody saw it coming – said Alvarado: “If after the first two games you’d have told me we’d be ACC champs in a few months, I’d have said you were crazy” – but those who saw it will recall this one for a long, long time.