On the list of meaningful indicators, attendance for NIT games probably doesn’t have the same correlation for success as recruiting rankings or budget size.
However, for Georgia Tech, it might help explain a little bit of what has happened this season around coach Josh Pastner’s team. By nearly filling the lower bowl of McCamish Pavilion for Tuesday’s first-round game against Indiana, the Yellow Jackets drew 5,538. Among the 16 first-round games for this secondary postseason tournament, only one other drew more, and many others drew significantly less.
A much larger turnout is expected Sunday, when the Jackets play Belmont in a second-round matchup at McCamish. Close to 6,500 tickets had been sold as of Saturday afternoon, and that was before student tickets. McCamish’s capacity is 8,600.
With the school on spring break, Pastner has sought to entice students back to campus by repeating his offer for the Indiana game to pay the $4 student admission price and topping it by also offering to pay for each to student to bring a guest, $15 a pop. About 1,100 students attended the Indiana game, the largest turnout of the season.
“I think we’re going to get a great crowd on Sunday,” Pastner said.
Sunday will be the final home game for the season — the winner will play at Mississippi for the right to go to New York for the semifinals. A noteworthy aspect of the season has been the support that fans have provided the team at McCamish, not only the students but the other sections, as well. At various moments, particularly during wins over Notre Dame and Syracuse, the din has been extraordinary.
“It was definitely exciting,” said Patrick Sisbarro, a December graduate and a diehard fan. “I was never there when the Thrillerdome was the Thrillerdome, but it was just great to have it so loud you couldn’t hear the person next to you.”
Sisbarro was a freshman at Tech in the 2012-13 academic year when McCamish opened following the renovation of the old Alexander Memorial Coliseum. He and friends from the Glenn dormitory founded the unofficial student group McCamish Maniacs. To help bring students to games, they handed out flyers, hung posters and met with the athletic department to share their ideas on how to build student attendance. They recognize that something fundamental has changed.
“I think the difference between this year and last year is that last year, even though the team’s performance was as good as this year, maybe even better, fans sort of realized that was sort of the peak,” said another co-founder, Robert Pensa, who graduated last spring. “We were sort of hoping we could get to the NCAA Tournament last year because we knew it was a special season. This year, fans can really see this is a rebuilding program and this is sort of our baseline and they’re excited about where we can go in the future.”
They see, too, a partner in Pastner, who visited student groups to encourage attendance and has continued to praise the energy from the student section in post-game comments, often saying the support has “willed” the Jackets to victory. He lured students to games with giveaways for 40-inch televisions and a scooter.
Pastner has pressed the right buttons. As of Saturday afternoon, an 82-second video posted on social media encouraging attendance for the Belmont game in which he repeated his free ticket offer to students with a promise of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, had been played 77,000 times on Facebook and Twitter. That’s about 3 1/2 times more than the average video produced by the athletic department and among the top 10 most watched this academic year.
“The students know that he will do whatever he can to make the atmosphere great for them because he knows the team needs that student support to build a great program,” said Sisbarro, who is so invested that he put off his work start date in Charlotte, N.C. so he could keep going to games after graduating.
It is not every coach that will buy 150 dozen doughnuts from Krispy Kreme, as Pastner will do for the Belmont game. (Krispy Kreme, a sponsor of the Tech athletic department, is making a matching donation.)
In its final home game of the season, a win would be Tech’s 17th at McCamish, which would set a school record for most home wins in a season. It would be a remarkable achievement for a team that Sports Illustrated ranked 204th in the country in the presason, the third lowest among power-conference teams.
“The alumni base, the students, just needed an infusion of energy, and that was all,” Pastner said. “They’ve caught on and it’s been good. They bought into it. I’m hoping we kind of continue to move forward on this.”
Note: Georgia Tech will be especially busy Sunday. Beyond the men’s basketball team playing in a second-round NIT game at noon at McCamish Pavilion, the Tech baseball, softball and women’s basketball teams will also be playing.
The softball team plays Syracuse at noon at Mewborn Field, the baseball team plays at Russ Chandler Stadium at 1 p.m. against North Carolina and the women’s basketball team will play a second-round WNIT game at McCamish at 5 p.m. against Central Florida.
Fans planning to come to campus before 2 p.m. will also have to plan around the Georgia Marathon and Half Marathon, which will take place Sunday morning. The school advises that “all fans accessing campus before 2 p.m. must do so via 10th Street,” as segments of North Avenue, Techwood Drive and Spring Street will be closed because of the race.