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Michael Wilbon

The Jackets Are Back in the Fold

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page E01

I want back on the Georgia Tech bandwagon right now, before it gets too crowded. I want back on the Georgia Tech bandwagon no matter what happens in the ACC final today against Duke. I want back on the Georgia Tech bandwagon because they're loaded, tournament tested and, best of all, reasonably healthy. I want back on because the Yellow Jackets were my pick to start the season since they were returning all but one key player from last year's NCAA championship game.

I want back on the Tech bandwagon because when you fill out your bracket tonight you want a team that's versatile, a team with smart and creative guards, a team with a deep bench, a team that has had to negotiate a tough conference, a team with a resourceful head coach, a team that goes into the NCAA tournament playing its best basketball and having beaten a worthy opponent, such as second-ranked North Carolina, which will get a No. 1 seed.

Georgia Tech has everything on that shopping list. I'm embarrassed to have jumped off a few weeks ago when things were looking bleak and the smart money was suddenly on then-undefeated Illinois or North Carolina. I asked Jarrett Jack, Georgia Tech's rock-steady playmaker and the Fort Washington kid who made good, if there was room for me to hop back on. He thought for a moment and said: "Well, you were still saying we could win it all through the midseason when we lost a few games and everybody was starting to give up on us. You waited a long time to jump off."

It's true. Tech had rolled to a 9-1 start -- with the lone loss coming at Gonzaga -- when B.J. Elder, the Yellow Jackets' best all-court player, injured his hamstring early in a loss at Kansas. Without Elder, Tech suddenly hit a four-game losing streak. The Yellow Jackets couldn't win two straight to save their lives. Elder would miss 10 games if you count playing only seven minutes at Kansas. Freshman forward Jeremis Smith, the team's best offensive rebounder, dislocated a kneecap and missed 17 games. Coach Paul Hewitt couldn't believe so many folks were suddenly critical of his team, as if there was no context for going from 9-1 to 12-7.

"People seem to understand even in the NBA when a really good team loses its players it's going to be a struggle," Hewitt said. "Look at the Indiana Pacers. What happens if they lose Ron Artest and Jermaine O'Neal? . . . I think I'm a pretty decent coach but I'm not that good a coach." Hewitt goes as far as to say that when Elder went out, "the coaching staff didn't do a good job, particularly offensively."

Whatever the case, home-court losses in February to North Carolina State and Duke sent me looking for another March favorite. Suppose Elder couldn't come back this season? Hamstrings are tricky and the college basketball season is a sprint, not a marathon like the NBA. Suppose there wasn't enough time even if Elder could make it back? I asked Jack if he ever got worried. "Yeah, I was a little worried," Jack admitted. "I would ask him before every game, 'You playin'?' "

Well, Elder did make it back. He scored 22 points in a win at Florida State, 15 in a win at Miami, 22 in a very tight loss at Wake Forest and 17 in a win over Clemson to close the regular season. Just as important as Elder's direct contribution was something indirect. "Everybody else has more space to operate because of B.J.'s presence," Hewitt said. Jack, the leading scorer, is relieved of some of that responsibility. Luke Schenscher, the 7-1 Aussie center, has more room to operate because Elder's man dares not leave him to double-team Schenscher. Oh, and let's not forget the extra driving and shooting room guard Will Bynum suddenly has.

Elder didn't score a basket against the Tar Heels, yet his occupation of North Carolina's defensive attention has to be mentioned in Bynum's career-high 35-point outburst that sent Carolina packing and me looking for a seat. "Don't underestimate B.J.'s impact on" Bynum's performance, Hewitt said.

True enough. But Bynum was the one sinking five three-pointers and going to the basket fearlessly. Excuse me while I gush over Bynum. He's a South Side of Chicago kid. Grew up across the street from DuSable High School, which produced Maurice Cheeks, the elegant former NBA all-star. Like Cheeks, Bynum is 6 feet tall but has the heart and hops to mix it up inside. He has nice range on his jumper and buys himself some space by keeping defenders guessing with these explosive drives to the basket.

Remember, this isn't some rinky-dink joint Bynum hung 35 on; it's North Carolina, with Raymond Felton. No Georgia Tech player has ever scored that many points in an ACC tournament game. Every one of Bynum's points was needed, too, because Elder was 0 for 4, Anthony McHenry missed his only shot and Jack was just 2 for 12 (though he did cowboy up for nine rebounds, five assists and just one turnover in 38 minutes).

Rashad McCants drained one late three-pointer to set up big drama; it seems as though North Carolina is involved in such games more than any other conference team. But McCants couldn't hit pretty much the same shot a second time with a clean look just before the buzzer that would have sent the game into overtime. As is, Tech held the Tar Heels to their worst shooting percentage and lowest assist total of the season.

"No disrespect to North Carolina," Hewitt said, "but this was no upset out here today. To be written off was kind of amusing to me. This team has played in big games, has won big games and demonstrated again it can still win big games."

So the ACC tournament is down to two teams, both of whom will be in the NCAA tournament field this week. Duke doesn't look to have the talent to be a No. 1 seed but keeps playing like one. People around here who whine about Mike Krzyzewski getting too much credit really should shut up and appreciate how hard and how well this Duke team plays without anything close to a typically loaded Duke roster.

Of course, Duke's situation hasn't changed this weekend. The Blue Devils are where they often are on ACC Sunday. Georgia Tech's situation, though, has changed. The Yellow Jackets have won four of five. They've beaten a presumptive No. 1 seed already. It's not a nice thought, standing in front of Tech as the bandwagon approaches at full speed.

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