When Georgia Tech stunned the ACC on New Year’s Eve by upsetting North Carolina 75-63, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams’ post-game comments kept returning to how disappointed he was in the way his team played. Looking back Monday, he acknowledged he’d made something of a mistake.
“I was really so frustrated about the way we played down there that day,” Williams said on the ACC teleconference. “I didn’t give them enough credit.”
There was time and opportunity to dole out credit Monday to the team that has become the surprise of the ACC. Williams was among several coaches offering their praise of the Yellow Jackets and coach Josh Pastner for their massive exceeding of expectations this season.
“They’ve had a fantastic year,” Williams said. “It’s shown. I’m hoping they make the NCAA tournament.”
After beating Syracuse Sunday, Tech is now 16-11 overall and 7-7 in the ACC, good for a tie for ninth in the conference. The Jackets, who play N.C. State Tuesday night at McCamish Pavilion, were picked to finish 14th in a preseason media poll. More dire predictions projected that Tech would go 0-18.
“I think they’re one of the really great stories, not just for the conference, but in college basketball,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
He called Tech an example of what can happen when teamwork, player development and, in his words, “really good coaching” come together.
“Josh has done a great job with his staff and it’s a great story,” Krzyzewski said.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose team will play Tech Sunday in South Bend, Ind., stuck with his declaration, made first after the Jackets beat the Irish Jan. 28, that the Jackets are an NCAA tournament team.
“I think Josh has done a fabulous job,” Brey said. “He’s done some really unique things on both ends of the floor. With what they’re doing with their triangle stuff offensively is a difficult preparation. It’s very, very hard to guard. And then the changing zone defenses and then you’ve got the rim protector in (Ben) Lammers back there, they’re hard to score against. They’re just a really tough preparation and it certainly isn’t a fluke.”
Coaches were particularly enamored with Lammers, the 6-foot-10 center who’s a strong candidate to be the league’s most improved player. Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams, who recruited Lammers when he was the coach at Marquette, called him a “statistical anomaly to be his size and do the things that he’s doing,” such as ranking second nationally in blocks per game at 3.41 while averaging a mere 2.5 fouls per game.
Said Krzyzewski, “I love that kid. I love how he’s played.”
Said Clemson coach Brad Brownell, “I think more coaches understood that Ben Lammers was a good player. I don’t know if we knew that he would be a double-double guy.”
Louisville coach Rick Pitino supported Pastner as ACC coach of the year. While there are other deserving candidates, such as Buzz Williams and Roy Williams, “Josh has just taken a team that nobody expected to be even competitive, never mind get an NCAA berth, (to tournament consideration),” Pitino said. “It’s great to see because Josh is a tremendous young man and he’s doing an outstanding job.”
To some, part of the reason for the surge has been that the talent that Pastner inherited was underrated.
“It was hard to know that Josh Okogie was going to be as good as he’s been,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “And he’s been really, really good. It’s not often that you have a freshman come into the league and average 15 points a game.”
Said Buzz Williams of Okogie, “he’s the best freshman that’s not one-and-done in our league relative to production. He’s been phenomenal.”
Brownell praised point guard Josh Heath (“I think he makes a lot of winning plays”) and forward Quinton Stephens (“He’s a good player and a guy who, as a senior, has stepped up and had a good year”).
Said Brey, “I think Brian (Gregory) left that thing a little more stocked than everybody thought.”
Krzyzewski called Tech’s resurgence great for the league.
“Georgia Tech has an outstanding brand that was established by my good friend Bobby Cremins, so it’s not a program that’s not won,” he said. “It’s a program that won big but hasn’t won for a while, and they’ve locked into that and have that spirit back.”