With Georgia Tech having played three NIT games, and playing a fourth Tuesday night in New York in the semifinals against Cal State Bakersfield, it’s an easy conclusion to draw.
Playing in a win-or-go-home atmosphere and simply getting more time on the court will serve the Yellow Jackets well going forward. It’s what Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton thought in 2014, when the Seminoles reached the NIT semifinals.
“I think this year will be a springboard for us to continue our program in the right direction,” Hamilton said after the game.
The following year, the Seminoles finished 17-16, ending a streak in which they had made either the NCAA or NIT for nine consecutive seasons. (Losing possibly their best player early in the season after he signed with an agent had something to do with it.)
Making the NIT semifinals has proven to be the springboard that Tech hopes it will be going into the 2017-18 season, but not always. Of the 40 NIT semifinalists between 2007 and 2016, 18 made the NCAA Tournament the next season.
Every team was not in the same situation as Tech is, with a new coach and a number of key players expected back and a clear eye on the future. Some were mid-major teams with lower ceilings than the Jackets would expect to have going forward. Some were power-conference teams playing for coaches whose tenures were nearing their end. (Power-conference teams were 11-for-23 in NCAA berths the following season.)
Still, it’s a reminder that each season is an entity unto its own and that momentum doesn’t always push a team as far as might be hoped. Another example is San Diego State, which beat Tech last year in the NIT quarterfinals. The Aztecs were disappointed to miss the NCAA Tournament, ending a six-year streak, but ended up making the semifinals.
They went into this season picked to win the Mountain West. Instead, the Aztecs struggled through their worst season since 2004-05, finishing sixth in the league and missing the postseason entirely. An article in the San Diego Union-Tribune observed that the team “toppled under the weight of unrealized promise.”
The challenge for the Jackets next year will be building upon this year’s accomplishment with the same determination and without key pieces. Point guard Josh Heath’s value to the team as a distributor and catalyst is understated. Forward Quinton Stephens made such strides this season that coaches have realized the need to find a player who can fill his role as a rebounder capable of double-double games. Guard Corey Heyward has given the team defensive toughness and been a model of a team-first player. Even forward Rand Rowland, a walk-on put on scholarship in January, has given the team a lift with his energy.
On the other hand, what Tech aspires to is entirely possible. Miami coach Jim Larranaga would tell you as much. In 2015, Larranaga’s fourth season, the Hurricanes missed out on the NCAA Tournament but then made the NIT finals. The following year, Miami was in the Sweet 16.
“I thought, No. 1, the team had a chip on its shoulder the next year because we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament and was bound and determined to make the NCAA,” Larranaga said. “But I thought we played with a lot more confidence having gone to the finals of the NIT, and we really developed some good chemistry.”
Of the 40 NIT semifinalists of the past 10 years, a team that particularly resembles Tech and its situaiton is the 2010-11 Colorado Buffaloes. Tad Boyle took over a team that had been to the NCAA Tournament once in the previous 13 seasons and was picked to finish ninth in its final season in the Big 12. Colorado finished in a tie for fifth and, after just missing the NCAA Tournament, capped the season by making it to New York, where the Buffaloes lost in the semifinals.
“This program is in good hands, and we have a lot of guys in that locker room coming back, a few guys that couldn’t play this year that are going to carry this program to places it’s never been before,” said Levi Knutson, a senior on that team, following its semifinals loss.
Knutson was right.
Since then, Colorado has made the NCAA Tournament four out of the past six years, an unprecedented run of success. As Tech gears up for a possible NIT championship and a hard-to-believe finish to Pastner’s first season, the aim is the same.
“I think for us the continuation of understanding that what we need to do to get to the NCAA Tournament – we’ve got more practices, got more games, we’ve gotten a lot of good stuff out of it,” Pastner said. “And the exposure. We’ll be able to build on this as we get into the offseason.”