Bubbled-up Georgia Tech will play for the ACC title

Credit: Gerry Broome

Credit: Gerry Broome

Josh Pastner has done a splendid job coaching this team. He turned a zero-star recruit into the ACC player of the year, a 3-star signee into the conference’s top defender. For the first time since 2005, Georgia Tech finished high enough in the league standings to receive a bye in the conference tournament. (It would have had one last year, but it opted to serve its postseason ban instead.) But the smartest thing Pastner has done and might ever do involves logistics.

As fate would have it, the Yellow Jackets finished their regular season on a Friday night against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. As COVID-19 would have it, the 2021 ACC Tournament was moved from Washington, D.C., to Greensboro, N.C., the latter city being the league’s headquarters. Winston-Salem and Greensboro abut one another. (Indeed, they’re part of the Triad, not to be confused with North Carolina’s more famous Triangle. The third leg of the Triad? High Point.)

On the day before Tech was to leave for Winston-Salem, Pastner changed his team’s plans. It wouldn’t return to Atlanta after the game. It wouldn’t return to Atlanta until after his team played its last game, which could be on the night of April 5 in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. That would be for the national championship, and don’t laugh. Already Pastner’s decision has lifted the Jackets into one championship game.

Owing to a positive test in the Virginia program, Tech’s scheduled ACC semifinal with the still-reigning-NCAA-champ – remember, there was no NCAA Tournament in 2020 – was canceled at 9:16 a.m. Friday. Tech will play the winner of Friday night’s Florida State-North Carolina semi for the ACC title at 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Not since 2010 had the Jackets reached the final; not since 1993 – the weekend of the Southern blizzard – have they won it.

By now, Pastner’s players are rolling their eyes over their coach’s attention to detail, and what’s driving him nuts isn’t when a defender fails to rotate or a shooter jacks a silly trey. Pastner is fixated on health and safety because he knows that’s the quickest way to get sent home this March, and this March is the month he has envisioned from the moment he took the job. After Josh Okogie’s early exit; after NCAA sanctions (some of which have since been overturned); after a four-year failure to launch; after a Year 5 that began with home losses to Georgia State and Mercer … after all the above, Pastner at last has his Jackets in place to do something memorable, and he’s terrified that it will slip because somebody gets in an elevator with someone else who’s about to sneeze.

You can chuckle about his face shield and his all-seeing eye – on Sunday, he upbraided longtime Tech publicist Mike Stamus for touching his shrimp cocktail with an ungloved hand – but look what has happened. Imperial Duke was eliminated from the tournament, after winning twice to reach the quarterfinals, because of a positive test. (The Blue Devils had sought to insulate themselves by commuting to/from Durham between games.) Now Virginia, which won the 2019 NCAA title and could in no way be described as a loosey-goosey program, has been scratched because of the detection of a disease that didn’t exist in April 2019.

But Georgia Tech is, knock on wood, still going. After Thursday’s narrow victory over Miami, Pastner was asked by yours truly if Duke’s ouster had underscored his fears. His answer:

“I have tried to the point of exhaustion. I repeat myself as it is, but think of repeating myself times 50. Think of me, as much as I repeat myself, times 50 on COVID protocols. I have been on it like you wouldn’t believe. We’re in the field. We’re going to the NCAA Tournament. We’ve got to do everything in our power to protect (that). You can’t see people on the outside. You can’t see a family member. If you do, it’s at the bus – distanced, masked, outside. It’s just keeping in our bubble. That’s why we did the bubble.”

Then: “The objective is just to get to Indianapolis. We want to do well in the ACC Tournament, but we want to get to Indianapolis Because these things are precious. It’s almost impossible to get to the NCAA Tournament. I know people think it’s easy. No. Let me be very clear: Winning is so hard. To get to the NCAA Tournament, you know how hard it is in this day and age? We’re in the tournament. We’ve just got to get to Indianapolis. We’ve got to continue to protect (ourselves), and that’s wearing a mask, avoiding people in the elevators. We can’t be around our family members. We’ve just got to stay in our bubble to get to Indianapolis.”

As of midday Friday, Tech’s bubble hadn’t burst. And there’s a chance these Jackets will head for Indy not as an at-large invitee but as an automatic qualifier. As the ACC champion. To borrow the late Al McGuire’s on-air reaction to a previous March wonder wrought by Tech (James Forrest in Milwaukee against USC, 1992): Holy mackerel.