Countdown to Tipoff: 31 Days
With one calendar month until the season starts, it’s time to take a look at the current state of affairs in the men’s basketball program. This week, Opinion Week, is the traditional start to any good From the Rumble Seat countdown, and today, your trusty non-revenue writer will take a look at what the current state of affairs in recruiting, and elsewhere around the Flats, says about the direction of Tech basketball and the athletic department at large.
Let’s talk about the future.
“A leading indicator is any economic factor that changes before the rest of the economy begins to go in a particular direction. Leading indicators help market observers and policymakers predict significant changes in the economy. Leading indicators aren’t always accurate. However, looking at leading indicators in conjunction with other types of data can help provide information about the future health of an economy.,” (Investopedia)
It should not surprise you that the last class I walked out of was Economics. Anyways, now that we’re all on the same page, allow me to explain what I mean by applying the theory of the leading indicator to the Georgia Tech Men’s Basketball team, and, by extension, the program as a whole.
If you’re a regular listener of From the Rumble Seat’s Scions of the Southland podcast - and you should be if you’re not - what’s to come might be pretty familiar to you. In fact, this concept was born in the middle of one of my patented rambling sentences that eventually arrives at the point. Revolutionary, I know. If you missed it, the idea was that we can take certain things that are happening now and use them to predict the state of the department as a whole in the future. The two that were settled on initially were the push to better recruit the talent-rich metropolitan Atlanta area and the improvement of team culture, and men’s basketball and women’s softball were explicitly singled out as good barometers.
In order to emphasize my former point, I’ll start with the latter. I’m absolutely certain that the athletic department is in a stronger place than it was, say, eighteen months ago. I don’t know why reading this very site’s original call to unify the brand sticks out in my mind, which long predates my own contributions to it, but even if we use that as a generously late starting point from which to judge how far the department has come, the results are substantial. Say what you will about how the adidas merchandise rollout was handled, but by now we are firmly decked out in adidas jerseys in three styles, gold shirts have invaded the campus, which, I’ll add, makes for a welcome and noticeable change from years past, and if you are so led, you can even purchase your very own magnets with the wordmark on them. As my personal favorite twitter account often says, morale is high, and it seems to be running very high within the walls of Edge-Rice, just based on the sheer exuberance of new projects like the video boards, the uptick in attendance and promotion for non-revenue sports like volleyball, and the gorgeous new aesthetic and frequency hype videos. These are indicators, to be sure, of the very pulse of the athletic association, though.
But where was I? Yes. Softball.
Unlike that laundry list of good signs in the administrative part of the department, the softball coaching change, the first and only, to date, hire the new regime has made will be the first to show us whether or not the philosophy of the front office translates well to the field of play. Sure, new gear is swell, but if the teams don’t win, the fans get restless. Fortunately for us, that hiring skill, with one year in the books, has so far looked to be inspired. With much of the same roster as the season before, supplemented by her first recruiting class, head coach Aileen Morales was able to get a hefty nine game improvement out of her squad and return to the postseason. Those nine games included their fair share of close losses to tough teams and puzzling losses to other teams - basically, it wasn’t a fluke. Then, with the calendar already flipping to the next year, the staff didn’t rest on their laurels. Rather, smelling blood in the water, and presumably armed with an aggressive recruiting pitch, they went out and reeled in a couple lauded incoming freshmen, which is nice, including some of the best talent from the metro Atlanta area (more on that idea later). Not only that, though, they went out and snagged a former SEC all-freshman award winner, the reigning Atlantic Sun Conference Freshman of the Year from Kennesaw State, and one of the most dominating pitchers in Division II from North Georgia. Clearly, something is going right. The full fruits of this labor have not even come to bear yet, but the early signs aren’t just encouraging, they are fantastic. So how does this relate to basketball?
The revenue sports are a little different than the likes of golf and tennis. Bruce Heppler and his golf team can churn out season after season of excellence and get the requisite praise, but, without the same laser focus of fans, media, and national talking heads, don’t share much of the same psychological burden that basketball and football do. So when the men’s basketball program, coming off a NIT championship appearance while retaining a promising core of Ben Lammers, Josh Okogie, and Tadric Jackson, drops a season that underwhelms more than impresses, rife with off the court controversy and seemingly epitomized by losing to lowly Grambling State on an own basket, that intensity gets ratcheted up a few notches.
But then, all of a sudden. Okogie turns around and gets drafted in the first round, going twentieth overall to the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was a productive finish for the Tech product, albeit earlier than most imagined. In just two years under head coach Josh Pastner and his staff, he turned from a decent local prospect to a legitimate NBA caliber player. That’s impressive player development.
I’d say it’s too early to speculate that into a whole narrative, but that doesn’t make it less compelling. Certainly Pastner and his staff struck gold, and realistically, they could do that with a kid from anywhere, be they from up north, out west, or overseas. But, in practice, it’s best to recruit to your strengths. And where does that fall? Tech lies in one of the most fertile recruiting beds of many sports, not just basketball. But sustained success at the corner of Tenth and Fowler starts from keeping Atlanta’s best and brightest in Midtown. It seems Pastner and his staff realize that, as a part of their holistic approach to recruiting and player development. Appealing to kids with a great opportunity to be positively exposed to Tech early and often is critical.
Right now, the primary focus of that drive seems to be Buford’s Marcus Watson, a highly touted recruit from relatively nearby. Now, what I say shouldn’t be taken to hinge on this one man, for he is, after all, just one player in one recruiting class, but can be implemented as a useful tool in this instance. Turning in on Atlanta, appealing to her native sons, and showing the rest of the conference and the nation that we are a force to reckoned with when it comes to landing the talented kids of Atlanta - the ones growing up right under our noses - is a critical step. Success in four years is determined by the kids the program brings in now, when the goal is, as Pastner says, to get old and to stay old, in the model of the Notre Dames and Virginias of the world. And when the core of those kids are the excellent players from here, sure the extraneous side benefits are nice - for example, increased attention from non-graduates in the metro area - but they can be seen as a barometer of Tech’s place not only in the short term but in the picture of sustained productivity in the long term, as well.
Much has been said about former head coach Bobby Cremins’ tradition of a New York “pipeline,” but who needs a pipeline when the wellspring is right at your doorstep? Atlanta is not starved for talent. Tech, ever an excellent home, full of plentiful opportunity on and off the court, in a big market, is not starved for alluring ways to draw recruits. Sustained success will come when Tech can reliably count on finding good talent to complement the veterans - ones that can grow old with the team.
A lot of the groundwork for seasons three, four, or five years down the line starts with the boots hitting the pavement for the universal grind of the college coach of any sport - drawing the well of young athletic talent. With Tech, that starts right in our front yard. Let’s see if they get down to business.
It’ll indicate something about where the team, the staff, and the department is heading.
And with this interesting left turn into writing columns about basketball, we have about a month into the season starts. To hear more about basketball, well, that’s not hard to find. We’ll be back with more as the season gets closer.
As for softball, the state of the department, and any other leading indicators I happen to think of on the fly in the future, keep an eye on Yellow Jacket Roundup on Mondays or Scions of the Southland whenever that makes its weekly appearance. And, as always, go Jackets.