Here they go again: Jackets' NCAA stock is on the rise

March 13, 2005|By LAURA VECSEY

WASHINGTON - Martha Stewart, Yahoo, Yellow Jackets.

Don't laugh. Just buy, which means pencil in Georgia Tech for a few rounds on your NCAA tournament bracket.

This is a safe bet, even if it's going to be the latest, greatest fad among March's mad day traders. By the time this newspaper hits your front walk, Georgia Tech's long-festering secret will no longer be a secret. The Yellow Jackets will probably be rated by Morningstar.

Not a bad surge for an unranked team that got zero respect most of the season for its NCAA tournament run last year. Thanks to North Carolina, Georgia Tech is bullish once again.

"This team as it is now is better than a 5 seed in this [Atlantic Coast Conference] tournament," coach Paul Hewitt said yesterday, adding, "When people said we weren't the same team this year that we were last year, I laughed. ... Our team, being a team that has accomplished a lot at big moments ... to be written off was kind of amusing to me."

Who's laughing now?

Will the Yellow Jackets be the Terrapins, reincarnated?

Will they be the ACC team that returns to the Final Four for a second consecutive time, where they lost the title match to Connecticut last April, now aiming to prove they can win it all?

"These two teams could very well see each other again if we are a little lucky," Hewitt said of Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

"I think we like this underdog role," Yellow Jackets guard Jarrett Jack said.

"I think it alleviates a lot of pressure," said Jack, who took his brother's advice to resume playing with confidence and swagger, like last year.

It's probably premature to leapfrog Georgia Tech into the elite fold, especially because Hewitt refused to venture even a guess about whether the Yellow Jackets would be invited to the Big Dance, let alone seeded in way that dignifies their talent, experience and peaking-at-the-right-time form.

But if Georgia Tech, which was ranked No. 3 in the preseason poll, was being traded on the Dow Jones, they would have had the bells ringing and the ticker tape spitting out smoke yesterday.

Talk about a hot, rising stock.

In the warp speed of real time, the Yellow Jackets gained more than just a victory in yesterday's ACC tournament semifinal against North Carolina, a team that was the undisputed No. 1 seed in this vaunted event, not to mention a near lock for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.

By halftime yesterday, Georgia Tech had risen to a No. 9 or 8 seed from being a so-called "bubble" team. (They weren't really a bubble, were they? And if you say yes, never show your face in front of Hewitt. He'll make you feel like a loser fool.)

That was just the start of their scintillating climb. With a halftime lead, the Yellow Jackets were better than a No. 8 seed, for sure. With 13 1/2 minutes left in the game and the score tied at 55, Tech had ascended further up the selection committee food chain, past a No. 7 or No. 6 seed.

When it was over and Tech had won, 78-75, it had streaked as high as a No. 5 or No. 4.

After a year of talk about Illinois, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Kentucky and Duke, look who's coming to the dance.

"All I said is that we have a chance to control our destiny," Hewitt said.

Duke was impressive in its win over N.C. State yesterday. The Blue Devils beat Georgia Tech twice this season, but that was when the Yellow Jackets were dealing with injuries. B.J. Elder did not play in Duke's 82-65 blowout in Durham, and Hewitt acknowledged it was "bad coaching" that prevented the Yellow Jackets from being more effective at times when some players were injured.

It's nice of Hewitt to shoulder the burden. He can handle it, especially as his stature among the NCAA elite coaches is about to ratchet up another notch.

With a win today over Duke, Georgia Tech would completely blow the cover off its lame-duck NCAA seeding status. Talk about peaking at the right time -- and there's no better place than the ACC tournament.

This is not a place for the top ACC teams to worry about damaging their postseason dreams. It doesn't appear as if anything the Tar Heels could or couldn't do would endanger their stronghold on the selection committee's good graces.

This Roy Williams team still seems pointed toward turning the new post-Dean Smith Era toward old, familiar heights. Williams has worn the look of a coach who all season knows he has a great chance to resurrect Tar Heels supremacy for real.

The Heels sport four probable NBA lottery picks, roared through the ACC to claim the regular-season crown and are no doubt a smart pick for a national title game appearance.

But this was a weekend built as much for N.C. State to make its case - and it did before falling to Duke. This was a weekend for the Yellow Jackets to demonstrate that the ACC tournament is their Wall Street.

Sell? No.

Hold? No.

Buy? Absolutely.

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