Three floors below, West 45th Street bustled with activity, visitors to New York enjoying Times Square. The sun shined brightly on a late March afternoon.
In a conference room at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Midtown Manhattan, Georgia Tech’s coaches and staff sat around a circular table. About 15 hours had passed since the Yellow Jackets defeated Cal State Bakersfield in an NIT semifinal. About 32 remained until they were to face TCU for the championship at Madison Square Garden. The topic at hand was TCU.
“They score in transition, off ball screens and off offensive rebounds,” said assistant coach Eric Reveno, who was assigned to break down the Horned Frogs. “(Numbers) 34 and 10 are very good on the offensive glass. Thirty-four is a tough matchup.”
So it went. They kicked around ideas of who should defend whom, which offensive sets would work best against TCU, what calls from the sideline they had picked up when watching TCU play Central Florida the previous night, how much of the team’s schemes could be tweaked without overloading players with such a quick turnaround.
“If you start playing mad scientist, the team can’t handle that,” Reveno said.
And there was a lot of concern about No. 34 — guard Kenrich Williams.
For this game, the labor did not yield fruit. On Thursday night, TCU ripped apart Tech for the NIT championship, winning 88-56 and tying a tournament record for the widest margin of victory in the title game. Tech’s coaches and — through their instructions — and players knew what was coming, but were unable to prevent the Horned Frogs’ overpowering performance.
“They’re a solid team,” center Ben Lammers said following the title game. “We scouted them well. They did what we expected them to do. But they did it a little bit better than I was assuming. They did it more efficient than I was expecting.”
On Wednesday, Reveno’s respect for TCU obvious as he led the staff — coach Josh Pastner, assistants Tavaras Hardy and Darryl LaBarrie, director of operations Julian Swartz, strength-and-conditioning coach Dan Taylor, player-personnel director Mario West and graduate assistants Taj Finger and Hayden Sheridan — through the game-planning meeting, which the AJC was granted permission by Pastner to observe.
To cover bases, Tech’s assistants studied video of the semifinalists on the other side of the bracket before their game with Cal State Bakersfield. Reveno watched at least three of the Horned Frogs’ most recent games, watching them all the way through while annotating different segments on the team’s video software to group the clips into different files — highlights of specific players, TCU’s zone offense, out-of-bounds plays and the like — to watch them again and organize his video presentation.
Once Tech won its semifinal, with the game ending around 9 p.m. Tuesday, Reveno returned to the hotel and refined a six-page scouting report as he watched the TCU-UCF game on television. It provided an overview, a breakdown of the Horned Frogs’ offense and defense and then individualized reports on each of the team’s regulars, including strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.
The challenge in analyzing an opponent and assembling a game plan, Reveno said, is boiling down the volume of information into an amount and form that is beneficial. It’s a process learned from 20 years in coaching, the first seven with former Stanford coach Mike Montgomery.
“One thing I learned from coach Montgomery in a game prep of one day is it’s not about a certain laundry list of things they can hurt you with, but actually identifying the 2-3 things that, if you emphasize in your game plan, you can make a difference,” he said. “There might be a guy on their team that is the No. 1 key to the game, but there’s not much you can do to stop it. You’re better off going to 2, 3, 4, 5.”
If Williams wasn’t No. 1, he was high up. As video director Tyler Benson set up the projection screen, Reveno compared him with Clemson’s All-ACC forward Jaron Blossomgame. The session was focused but casual. Reveno and Pastner made most of the observations and suggestions, with other assistants chiming in with questions. After they had decided that forward Quinton Stephens would defend Williams when Tech went to its man defense, LaBarrie asked who would defend him if Stephens went to the bench. Reveno’s answer was guard Josh Okogie.
“He makes ‘man’ rebounds time and time again,” Reveno said of Williams.
Besides Williams, main concerns were TCU’s fast-break game and its ability to create offense off ball screens. Point guard Alex Robinson was another. Reveno noted that the Horned Frogs were the only team that Tech has faced that ranked higher than the Jackets in a statistical category that Pastner cherishes, assists per made field goal.
“They really are unselfish,” he said.
Around 1 p.m., players wandered in for a late lunch of cold-cut sandwiches. Guard Justin Moore played a hand-clapping game with LaBarrie’s 11-year-old daughter Sydney, who had been sitting quietly by herself during her father’s meeting. The coaches’ meeting broke up, with the team to return for the video session at 2:30.
Pastner opened the video session with a couple of points — players were going to have to be focused because there would be no full-speed work in practice to rehearse for TCU. Also, TCU was a sound defensive team. Sticking to basics was imperative.
“Everyone understand that?” he asked. “Can’t get fancy. Can’t get cute. Gotta hit singles.”
Reveno took over the presentation, with clips of players (“he loves going to his left,” he said of Robinson) and plays (“we’ve just to be real sharp on our ball-screen coverage”). He kept players engaged by calling their attention to their roles (“Josh O, this might be you guarding 15 down there. They might post you.”)
“‘Q,’ you’ll start on 34,” Reveno said to Stephens, referring to Williams by his jersey number. “He’s probably their best overall player. He can play inside, outside, he can rebound, he’ll initiate the fast break. We’ve got to do a great job on him.”
Stephens sat quietly front and center, in a seat closest to the screen.
After about 30 minutes, Pastner called the meeting to a close to head to practice at Baruch College.
“Let’s get on the bus, let’s go,” he said. “Twenty-nine hours.”
As it would turn out, the game was well on its way to being decided about 29 hours and five minutes from that moment. Tech was caught flush by a perfect storm of an opponent near the top of its game and raging with energy, a tentative start by the Jackets, its best player getting snagged in foul trouble (Lammers) and almost the whole rotation playing poorly. Lammers and Stephens were a combined 3-for-19 for 13 points, 12 points below their combined average.
Tech fell behind 10-0, 16-1 and 21-5 before the Jackets started to hit back, losing the ball on the dribble, getting beaten on the glass and unable to keep up with the Horned Frogs’ transition game.
“We’ve come back before and done some things,” Pastner said. “Once we got down 14-1, I was concerned.”
Speaking Friday, Pastner second-guessed his decision not to change how Tech defended TCU’s ball screens, which were a rich source of Horned Frogs baskets. He made a change late in the game, and it was effective, he said, but too late. He said he contemplated it after watching more game video, but decided to stick with what had worked in the team’s four-game run to get to New York.
“I should have done it way earlier, and that’s on no one to blame but myself,” he said.
Williams proved even more than Tech feared. He scored a game-high 25 points from all over the court to go with 12 rebounds and four steals. He was an easy choice for tournament most outstanding player.
“He’s just a great athlete,” Lammers said. “We couldn’t do anything about him for a while.”
Pastner acknowledged that he probably didn’t realize how dangerous Williams was until seeing him in person.
“He was the difference maker,” he said.
After a tough ending to a feel-good season, Pastner stuck to the positive in his postgame address to the team, reminding players of their achievements as a team. However, he already had his eye ahead.
“You should be proud of yourselves,” he said in a video captured by the team. “It can never be taken away. We’ve got to get better as a program, starting with me. I’ve got to get better, and we’ve all got to get better. We’re in this together.”