At the beginning of the men’s college basketball season, I was given a few words of caution by a friend who has watched Tech sports longer than I have.
“Don’t get your hopes up this season,” he told me. “Don’t be optimistic in your predictions. This is a rebuilding year.”
I heeded his advice. I made the mistake of thinking that the Jackets were bona fide conference contenders after their stunning win over Virginia last season. From there, all I got was disappointment. Coach Brian Gregory did his best to keep morale high, but it was clear amidst the promises to get better and to correct errors that the team had hit a ceiling.
Entering the 2016-17 season, many of the players who made that team what it was, from
dynamo scorer Marcus Georges-Hunt to powerful inside presence Charles Mitchell, were no longer with the team. The Jackets were one of the nation’s youngest and least experienced squads.
Freshmen like Josh Okogie and Justin Moore, players greeted by recruiters at top programs by little more than a collective shrug, would have to play meaningful minutes. As for returning players? The standout was Quinton Stephens, who was a quiet if reasonably effective piece on the teams of years past. My friend was right. There was no reason to expect more than some learning moments and perhaps a lucky conference win or two.
Perhaps as a make-up for last year’s disappointing season, though, the men’s basketball team has very pleasantly subverted my low expectations. Somehow, the team stands at 3-3 in conference play after a narrow loss to the significantly favored Virginia Tech Hokies.
Okogie has established himself as one of the conference’s most impressive newcomers, Moore has proven to be an effective distributor and Stephens has shown an ability to provide spurts of quality offensive play.
In addition, new head coach Josh Pastner, who was cautioned by his athletic director and ACC colleagues alike that this season would be an uphill battle, has won games against mainstays Roy Williams and Mark Gottfried.
If you’re wondering how this Tech basketball team is doing that, you’re not alone. However, there appears to be a quiet confidence about this team, one that has made every game so far a contest, save for a pummeling against an angry Duke team. (That team was welcoming star guard Grayson Allen back from an ‘indefinite’ one-game suspension, one triggered when Allen decided to make a habit out of tripping opponents.)
I haven’t even mentioned the stellar play of Ben ‘The Laminator” Lammers, the gangly, soft-spoken big man who has captured the hearts and minds of every commentator with the fortune of calling a Tech game this season. Where players like Okogie and the enigmatic Tadric Jackson give the Jackets hope from the outside, Lammers offers strength in the paint, something not many other Jackets players can claim on a night-in, night-out basis.
Maybe I’m doing exactly what my friend told me not to do. Maybe Tech basketball has just decided to prolong my blithe disregard before I am reminded that Tech athletics aren’t allowed to have (consistently) good things.Though somehow I think things will be different. I think this team will give a lot of good ones a run for their money (like they already have.) I think teams that find themselves losing to Tech
will stop questioning whether they’ve just hit rock bottom and start tipping their cap to their opponent. I think Josh Pastner’s new era might be what it takes to fill seats at McCamish again.
Granted, there’s a lot of time left in the season. It is one thing to beat a North Carolina team still finding its legs and gelling together in December, and another to beat them in the conference tournament with the stakes raised. Make no mistake, there are obvious shortcomings on the current team. The shooting is streaky, the rim protection can suffer at times in Pastner’s zone defense and there is a lack of big-game experience.
While this may well be another rebuilding year for Tech basketball, at least it seems as though we’re building towards something. A something top recruits can’t simply write off, a something that makes McCamish Pavilion the ‘Thrillerdome’ again and cements the Jackets as something more than an also-ran on the national stage.
Although the cynical side of me tells me that this journey won’t end with that result particularly quickly, I am on board and ready for the ride.