Bobby Cremins dipped his pineapple into the soda, took a long juicy bite and stared for a second at the Pacific Ocean, bright blue in the midday Hawaiian sun.
Fifteen hours earlier, he had watched his Georgia Tech basketball team beat a good Arkansas team, 72-52, in the opening round of the Rainbow Classic. He had watched his classy junior guard, Mark Price, control the game from the outside, scoring 22 points. He had seen his rapidly improving big man, John Salley, control the inside. And he had watched his 6-foot-3 guard, Bruce Dalrymple, get 11 rebounds.
"It was a good win, important for the program," he said. "We still have a long way to go, though."
Bobby Cremins just can't stop saying that. In his 10th year as a college coach, he is dealing with the pressure of high expectations, of national ranking and attention, for the first time. His Yellow Jackets, ranked 10th in the country, are 8-1 after beating 11th-ranked Washington, 65-58, in a semifinal tonight. It wasn't easy because they trailed by five points with five minutes left. In the final they will play the winner of the Maryland-Hawaii game that was to start about 2 a.m. EST Friday.
"Now, we're the favorites in a lot of games," said Price, who was named all-Atlantic Coast Conference last season. "When I first got here, everyone on our schedule just counted us as a 'W.' "
Tech was the ultimate underdog. In 1981, the year before Cremins took over, the school was 4-23 and didn't beat a Division I team. But now, after going 10-16, 13-15, 18-11, Tech is in the overdog role. Cremins, a 37-year-old self-described street kid from the Bronx, the son of Irish immigrants, is having trouble adjusting.
"My friends say they've never seen me this uptight," Cremins said, giving himself a break after a run along the beach today. "I just worry about us being like Notre Dame in football or Iowa last year in basketball.
"I wake up in the morning and I see Georgia Tech in the top 10 and see people talking about how good we are and I get scared. Expectations are a dangerous thing. We are not a great team -- yet. We could be six months or a year or a year and a half away. We still have mental letdowns. And now, when we lose, people get very disappointed."
Tech has lost once this year, by one point to Georgia. But the Yellow Jackets bounced back three nights later to beat N.C. State on the road. If they win this tournament, like it or not, Cremins and his team will receive a lot more attention.
"I'm used to the underdog role. I'm comfortable with it," Cremins admitted. "All the time I've been playing and coaching, I've been an underdog. I wouldn't mind getting used to a Dean Smith kind of role. But that takes a long time."
Cremins' accent still is 100 percent Bronx, even though he has lived much of his adult life in the South. He played for Frank McGuire at South Carolina and coached at Appalachian State for six years before coming to Tech at a time when a lot of people didn't want the job because the program had sunk so low.
"When I first came to Tech, the first game we played I went out to warm up and there was no one there," said Price, Cremins' first major recruit. "Now, whenever we play, the place is packed."
Which explains Cremins' discomfort. He is a driven person who dreams big, but worries that too much has happened too fast.
Cremins has four players with the potential to be all-ACC. There is Price, of course, who had 20 points tonight against Washington. Then, there is Salley, a quick, 7-foot forward who improves almost daily. Dalrymple, a sophomore, is a remarkable rebounder for a guard, a player who describes himself as "loving to get in there and bang." And 6-5 freshman Duane Ferrell, from Calvert Hall in Towson, Md., is another hard-nosed player who can go inside and score.
"Those four guys can go on the court and play physically with anybody," Cremins said. "They still have a lot to learn mentally, but there's a lot of ability there, no question about it. I just worry about Notre Dame and Iowa, though."
Cremins' players remain a loose group.
"With Coach Cremins, you know you're going to have to give him 110 percent all the time. He's never going to let up on you," Price said. "But if you give that to him, he'll give you just as much. It's worth it."
Not all of Cremins' recruits have survived that approach. Brian Howard, a starter as a freshman, signed a professional baseball contract after Cremins' first season. Danny Pearson, also a starter, flunked out after his second year. Tim Harvey, a 6-11 center, transferred to Miami after last season. And Bud Adams, a 6-7 freshman this season, has transferred to Vanderbilt.
"I'm an aggressive person and I push all my kids," Cremins said. "I can't reach every player the way I want to. I guess I either bring out the best in a kid or the worst. There isn't really much in between with me."
Which may explain why Cremins is so uptight. He knows his team is on the verge of being one of the best in the country. Being so close, he doesn't want to lose his grip on the ladder.
"One thing about those four kids who can play with anyone," Cremins said. "They're all back next year."