The next 48 to 72 hours are among the most important for Georgia Tech basketball in a really long time. After 10 years without a bid to the NCAA Tournament, Greg Gumbel will call the Yellow Jackets’ name at some point Sunday afternoon during the selection show on CBS.
Shortly thereafter, Georgia Tech plans to board a plane to Indianapolis to join the pseudo-bubble the NCAA has built to play a tournament as COVID-free as possible.
For coach Josh Pastner and a group of players who stuck with the program through some lean times, it will be the culmination of a remarkable rebuilding job. The ultimate payoff is so close they can taste it.
But before any of that happens, Georgia Tech is going to play an ACC championship game Saturday night at a tournament where two teams have already been forced to withdraw because of positive COVID-19 tests, including Virginia, which was supposed to be Tech’s opponent in Friday’s semifinal before a positive test popped up.
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At this point, the smart thing to do would be for the Yellow Jackets to say “thanks, ACC, it’s been fun,” hunker down in their hotel rooms for the next couple days and pray that their next few daily tests all come back negative. If getting to Indianapolis is the goal, shutting things down until Sunday night would be the safer bet.
But Georgia Tech isn’t going to do that. In fact, Pastner said Friday it wasn’t even discussed. The Yellow Jackets will play either North Carolina or Florida State in the title game on Saturday night.
“We’ve got to get to Indy, but our guys want to compete,” Pastner said. “It wasn’t even a thought. We want to compete, and we have a chance to play for a championship, so we never thought for a second that we wouldn’t play.”
You can understand the sentiment. Georgia Tech hasn’t won an ACC Tournament since 1993. For a program emerging from a lost decade, Saturday night will be a huge showcase on ESPN. As much as these conference tournaments might seem insignificant once the bracket is set, the opportunity to hang a championship banner would be a big deal.
But isn’t that a fundamentally unfair choice?
No team should have to worry that playing in a championship game might imperil its participation in the more important tournament next week. No team should have to be in a position to risk its ultimate goal so that the conference can fulfill a television contract.
“Anxiety is an understatement,” Pastner said. “It’s easier to say ‘Hey, it’s out of your control so don’t worry,’ and I understand that and get that. But as hard as it is to get to the NCAA Tournament for Georgia Tech, I want our guys to experience it. I know it’s been such a grind to get to this point and we’re right there.”
Hopefully it’ll all work out for Georgia Tech. Odds are, it probably will. But now that we’re well into championship week with Virginia and Duke in the ACC and Kansas in the Big 12 being forced to pull out of their tournaments due to COVID-19 cases, isn’t it obvious there was a better way to do this?
We’ve known since before the first official day of the season that the challenges for college basketball in navigating the coronavirus were going to be significantly larger than college football based on smaller roster sizes and more road trips, which is where a lot of the difficulties seem to stem from.
That teams are having to pull out of these games should not be a surprise. It’s what’s happened literally every week of the regular season.
So once the NCAA sent out guidance that players, coaches and other key personnel inside the Indianapolis bubble would need to have seven consecutive days of negative tests before traveling, one of three things needed to happen.
The most sensible option would have been for the major conferences to just cancel their conference tournaments altogether. If that was unacceptable financially, they could have lopped off the last week of the regular season and played the conference tournament then, creating more of a buffer for any COVID-19 issues popping up at the tournament to be resolved. Or, the NCAA could have moved the start of the tournament back a week and gotten the teams to quarantine in Indianapolis – something neither the NCAA nor CBS wanted to do.
So instead, everyone just acted like this was basically business as usual. And the result is not knowing for sure whether Virginia and Kansas will be able to play next week 48 hours before Selection Sunday, not to mention the concern about whether there will now be issues for Syracuse and Oklahoma, the teams whom Virginia and Kansas played, respectively, on Thursday.
“Unfortunately we caught a bad break at the wrong time,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, while suggesting that he expects the Jayhawks to have enough players eligible for the NCAA Tournament.
There hasn’t been any sort of theory or explanation for what’s going on at the ACC or any specificity about how many Virginia players are impacted through contact tracing. Its new commissioner, Jim Phillips, has been fairly invisible from a media standpoint since officially starting on the job last month. In a text message to USA TODAY Sports, Phillips essentially reiterated a substance-free statement he issued earlier Friday saying that the league was following the advice of its medical advisory group.
It does not appear the ACC has considered calling off the tournament.
Georgia Tech has tried to create its own bubble on the road, staying at the same hotel in Greensboro, N.C., since last Thursday before its last regular season game at Wake Forest. For players whose families made the trip, they can only see each other from a distance. He’s told them not to interact with players from other teams they might run into at the hotel other than a physically distanced hello. They’re not even supposed to get on elevators with anyone who isn’t in the Georgia Tech traveling party.
“We’ve just got to finish it out and quarantine in our rooms, go eat and go back and keep testing negative,” Pastner said. “At the same time we want to win tomorrow, you want to win a championship. With the virus you do the very best you can but you can’t see it.”
In other words, game on for the Yellow Jackets. Let’s hope it’s a decision that doesn’t compromise their chances of making an NCAA Tournament run.