Originally created 03/16/05

Tech gets swagger for NCAA tournament



ATLANTA - Isma'il Muhammad was trying to answer a reporter's question, but Will Bynum wouldn't let him.

Sitting nearby, Bynum kept poking fun at his teammate, distracting Muhammad so much that he finally gave up.

"I can't remember what I was trying to say," Muhammad said Tuesday, casting a look of mock disgust toward Bynum.

Yep, Georgia Tech is loose and feeling pretty good about itself heading into the NCAA tournament, just a few weeks after being labeled one of the most disappointing teams in the country.

"You can see we've kind of got our swagger back," Muhammad said. "We played some good basketball at the end of the season."

Suddenly, the Yellow Jackets (19-11) are being touted as a team that could shock some folks in the NCAA tournament. After all, they've still got most of the same cast - Bynum, Muhammad, Jarrett Jack, Luke Schenscher, B.J. Elder - that starred in a surprising run to the championship game a year ago.

"We've got some people eating their words now," Muhammad said. "They wrote us off in the middle of the season when B.J. got hurt. Even when he came back, we didn't gel right away. But the way we played in the ACC tournament showed we still have some fight left in us."

Georgia Tech, which went nearly two months without winning two games in a row, was on the NCAA bubble heading into the final week of the regular season. For a team that began the season ranked third in the country, it was quite a letdown.

But the Yellow Jackets defeated Clemson in their regular-season finale, routed Virginia Tech to start the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, then pulled off a stunning upset of North Carolina in the semifinals.

Not even a loss to Duke in the ACC championship game hurt the team's morale. The players were relaxed and joking around after Tuesday's practice, pleased to have earned a No. 5 seed with their strong finish.

The Yellow Jackets open the NCAAs Friday night against George Washington in Nashville, Tenn.

"Everybody's got a shot," Bynum said. "It just takes a little bit of luck and timing. We're playing good at the right time, so we've got the timing part down."

Not that the Yellow Jackets don't have a few problems. Jack is hobbling on a sprained ankle, while Muhammad arrived for his interview session with a big pack of ice taped to his right knee.

Coach Paul Hewitt is confident that Jack - clearly the team's most valuable player - will be ready to go by Friday, but the junior point guard sounds more concerned.

"If I feel like I can't go out there and contribute, I would be doing an injustice to the team by trying to play," Jack said. "If I can't play to my normal capabilities, I'll tell coach to sit me down."

Muhammad didn't play at all in the ACC tournament, giving him a chance to rest his ailing knee. He plans to get it checked out after the season, but is determined to finish his senior year on the court - not the sideline.

"I've got to tough it out," Muhammad said. "Hopefully we've got three more weeks to go in the season. At this time of year, you just have to play through it. Pain doesn't matter anymore."

The Yellow Jackets won five thrilling games in last year's tournament. The largest margin was an eight-point win over Kansas in the regional final - and that game went to overtime.

"I don't think we played great in any game," Jack said. "But we just kept getting the job done."

Georgia Tech finally met its match in the championship game, losing to Connecticut 82-73 after falling behind by as many as 25 points in second half. Ever since, the Yellow Jackets have been longing for another chance to win it all.

Bynum even showed up Tuesday wearing a pullover with the 2004 Final Four logo.

"I've got to remind the team. I've got to remind the media. I've got to remind everybody," he said. "It gives you a little confidence when you're been there before.

"But a teams like George Washington has never been there. They are hungry. They want to upset us. That drives me more than last year's experience."