In coach Bobby Cremins’ third season at Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets earned a bid to the NIT, which was followed by nine consecutive NCAA tournaments. In coach Paul Hewitt’s third season, Tech went to the NIT quarterfinals and the following season advanced to the NCAA finals for the first time in school history.
Coach Brian Gregory is in his second season at Tech, but an NIT berth, an opportunity that could well launch the Jackets as it has in the past, is a possibility.
“If we have the opportunity to play in the postseason, whatever that might be, I think that’s a step forward,” Gregory said.
Tech (16-13, 6-11 ACC) finishes its regular season Saturday at Boston College in a noon game that will determine eighth place in the ACC. From an NIT perspective, the Jackets need every win they can stack up.
“They’re on our radar, but there are several teams from that league on our radar, as well as the SEC and the others,” said C.M. Newton, the basketball Hall of Famer who chairs the NIT selection committee.
An NIT primer: Beginning with the 2006 NIT, the tournament has been owned by the NCAA, which instituted two notable changes. It reduced the field to 32 teams and awarded automatic bids to regular-season conference champions that did not make the NCAA tournament. In the past five seasons, the number of bids awarded to regular-season champions has ranged from five in 2009 to 14 in 2011.
Newton said that the selection committee selects and orders teams in the same manner as the NCAA committee (chaired by soon-to-be Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski) — picking the best available teams, often using metrics such as RPI, strength of schedule and record against top-50 teams.
“We don’t worry about who the biggest arena is or how many fans they’ll draw or any of that stuff,” Newton said. “We just have a true basketball championship.”
The biggest plus on Tech’s resume is its shocking road win Wednesday over No. 6 Miami. It also has wins over likely NCAA tournament teams Saint Mary’s and Virginia, although the Cavaliers may be sliding into the NIT. The Jackets also are finishing relatively well, which Newton considers a factor.
On the minus side, Tech has weak schedule strength for an ACC team and only 16 wins to show for it, although the Jackets have played 10 RPI top-50 teams, tied with Duke for most in the ACC.
Going into Friday’s games, Tech ranked No. 120 in RPI and No. 95 in strength of schedule, according to warrennolan.com. Of the 119 teams ahead of them, 62 were pegged by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi for the NCAA tournament. Of the remaining 56 (not including Connecticut, which is ineligible), 13 also had more wins and a higher strength-of-schedule rating than Tech. Those 13 don’t even include five teams considered on the NCAA bubble and others with arguably stronger resumes, such as Florida State, Iowa, St. John’s and Ohio.
Should the field include 18 of those 22 and, say, eight automatic qualifiers, that leaves Tech fighting for one of six spots with perhaps 20 teams with cases comparable with the Jackets’.
While plenty will ride on the number of automatic qualifiers, the Jackets need to beat Boston College on Saturday and win their first-round game in the ACC tournament (quite possibly against the same Eagles) to get to 18 wins, which may make their case stronger. Then, it would help to at least play a close game against their second-round opponent, which in this case would be Miami, which already has clinched the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
Failing the NIT, the College Basketball Invitational, a five-year-old tournament known mostly to hoops junkies, is a possibility. Although no ACC team has accepted a CBI invitation since Virginia played in the inaugural 2008 tournament, Gregory noted last year’s tournament was won by Pittsburgh, a young team looking for experience similar to Tech this season.
“Our job is to help build this program,” he said. “If that’s a step that will help it, then we’d have to take a look at that.”
Of course, the Jackets could just bypass the NIT by winning the ACC tournament.