The press release was three sentences, free of flowery language or even official letterhead. “Georgia Tech women’s basketball head coach MaChelle Joseph has been placed on leave, effective Wednesday, Feb. 27. Assistant coach Mark Simons will serve as acting head coach. Georgia Tech’s next game is Thursday (Feb. 28) at Miami. As it is a pending personnel matter, Georgia Tech will have no further comment at this time.” The following is a conversation between sports editor Harsha Sridhar and assistant sports editor John Edwards shortly afterwards.
Harsha: So John, details are obviously very sparse right now. Perhaps it will be clearer when this paper hits the stands on Friday why exactly Joseph has been placed on leave. But the wording ‘placed on leave’ does not sound as though it was a mutual decision. In covering the program, have you ever seen hints that something like this would happen with Joseph? Because this is an absolute shock to me.
John: I agree, this came from completely out of left field and somewhat blindsided me. There was no indication that this was coming. I can only hope that this is a lot of nothing, but that Tech made it sound like this was not of Joseph’s own volition is not a great sign. Unfortunately, Tech is being very tight-lipped about the whole thing, so details may be scarce for a while. In terms of the season as a whole, though, I think the biggest question other than “What happened?” is now “How will this affect women’s basketball going into the postseason?”
Harsha: That is absolutely the question of the hour, and with due respect to interim head coach Mark Simons, who has proven himself to be a more than capable assistant, taking the keys to an ACC program is difficult, particularly at this time of year and especially on one day’s notice — unless Simons had advance warning this would happen. The team had been playing fairly well as of late, winning four of their last five games. Now, it is entirely possible that the Jackets will enter the ACC Tournament — and perhaps even their postseason invitational tournament — with Simons at the helm. Simons has never been a head coach in women’s college basketball, but he has led a men’s team: Elon, from 1993 to 2003. It is time for him to shake off the rust. But the thing is, John, it is still unclear what tournament Tech will end up at: the NCAA Tournament or the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. The term ‘bracketology’ is misleading because it implies that the process is scientific. What does Tech have to do differently to beat the top-tier ACC teams that have stymied them this year and thus secure a berth to the Big Dance? I am looking particularly at Notre Dame, Louisville, NC State, Syracuse, Miami and Florida State, all of whom are ranked in the top 25.
John: Right now, Tech is ranked middle of the road in the ACC, which is generally good enough for a spot in the NCAA tournament. Tech’s last two regular season games are against Miami and Florida State, two teams who are already almost assured a bid and at least a top eight seed — if Tech can beat either one, they will reinforce an already strong showing this season and improve their case. There’s also the ACC Tournament where the Jackets have a decent chance to play to at least the quarter-finals, though it is mathematically impossible for the Jackets to get a second-round bye. Still, Tech has made much of their case already with resounding wins over Syracuse and Clemson — a road win over Miami would lock up their spot. But getting there is one thing, succeeding is another: how well do we think Tech might do in the NCAA Tournament should they make it?
Harsha: Nobody currently on the team has Tournament experience. MaChelle Joseph has not taken her team that far since the 2013-14 campaign. And in terms of veteran leadership, Francesca Pan has not taken the step forward on the court that many had expected; of Tech’s eight leading scorers, no one has a lower shooting percentage than her 32.8 mark. So how far Tech makes it in the Tournament, if they end up there, will likely depend on how the two outstanding freshmen, Elizabeth Balogun and Elizabeth Dixon, perform. Balogun has posed a threat scoring basically anywhere on the floor, and Dixon is a nightmare to deal with in the paint. Both have played their fair share of big games already — that is life in the ACC — but that test ratchets up even further in the NCAA Tournament. The Jackets will not have a high seed, so their first-round matchup will likely be against a team that has put together a very impressive resume. If Dixon and Balogun shine, and veterans such as Pan and Kierra Fletcher chip in scoring and defense, I think Tech has at least a puncher’s chance against anyone who is not Notre Dame or UConn.
John: Well, let me play devil’s advocate for a moment —Tech is No. 40 by RPI entering Wednesday, and despite their 17-10 record, they have struggled against the very top of the ACC. Aside from their signature wins, they have struggled a good bit against the top half of the ACC, going 2-4 against teams ahead of them in the standings. Maybe some familiarity will help them in the ACC Tournament and beyond, but I think Tech might struggle to pull upsets — expect them to enter the tourney as an underdog. But again, they have to make the NCAA tournament first.