SAN ANTONIO, Texas – The kid who should have been their best player (Chris Bosh) skipped to the NBA. The one who turned out to be best (B.J. Elder) got hurt in round two of the NCAA tournament and has scored two points since.
Then there is Will Bynum, the player Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt absolutely trusted on Saturday to take the game-winning shot in the Final Four. Bynum had been benched numerous times this season, as recently as the second round.
"We went out to dinner [that] Tuesday," Hewitt said of his temperamental but tempting point guard. "I said, 'Hang with me.' "
Bynum did. And so there he was, hanging in the lane with 1.5 seconds left, Oklahoma State defenders surrounding him and somehow, someway sneaking in the game winner. Georgia Tech 67, OSU 65.
Now it is hang on, Atlanta; the Yellow Jackets are 40 minutes from a national title.
Georgia Tech (28-9) doesn't do it big or brash, winning five tournament games by an average of 4.4 points. It doesn't do it the easy or obvious way. But it just keeps on doing it.
It could have lost any game in this tournament. But it didn't.
And that is the point.
"This team has such karma," assistant coach Dean Keener said.
The key for Tech is that its slew of star-caliber players doesn't mind sharing the starring role.
Against Oklahoma State it was guard Marvin Lewis, who had 15 points in the first half, then took just one shot in the second. It was big center Luke Schenscher, who crushed the Cowboys inside for a stretch (19 points, 12 rebounds) but didn't mind not getting a touch down the stretch.
And most importantly it was Bynum, who had taken just five shots prior to the final possession yet had 100-percent confidence in his ability to win the game.
"The coaches and players, they instilled a lot of confidence in me," Bynum said.
But that's Georgia Tech, isn't it? The Southern power is on the rise under Hewitt, a Long Island native. He never has stopped believing in his kids and his system, no matter how low the preseason polls picked the Jackets (seventh in the ACC) or how many grumbled about his 48-44 record over his first three seasons at Tech.
"I've never lost sight of the fact [that] if you're building a program the right way, there's going to be steps," he said. "We're in an age where everyone wants it right now. You don't go from zero to 60."
Bynum has been a particular challenge. The 6-foot guard is both a mesmerizing talent and a migraine waiting to happen. Hard-nosed and hard-minded, he has brought a ton of Chicago toughness to Tech. At the same time the Arizona transfer has been sporadic in completely buying into Hewitt's team-first style.
The irony is that while Tech is here because they play unselfishly, they are also here because in late-game situations Bynum is entirely selfish.
"Coming out of the huddle Coach said, 'If somebody is open, hit them,' " Bynum said of the last play. " 'If not, take the shot.' In my mind I was thinking, 'Take the shot' the whole time."
"I know he's telling you the truth there," Hewitt said.
Hewitt's job was to strike a balance and keep an aggressive guard aggressive – yet not too aggressive. In the second-round game against Boston College Hewitt was so frustrated with Bynum he played him just six minutes, even though the game was in Milwaukee, just up the road from Bynum's Chicago home.
"I sat him in front of his family," Hewitt said.
But rather than taking it personally, Bynum just got tougher. And with leading scorer B.J. Elder basically out of action with a bum ankle ever since, Bynum has stepped up. In the regional semifinal his lay-up with 1 minute, 6 seconds left gave Tech the lead for good against Nevada. His 3-pointer in overtime busted open the St. Louis Regional final against Kansas.
"There's no doubt that if he's not on our team, we don't get out of the first round," Hewitt said of the Yellow Jackets' 65-60 scare against Northern Iowa.
So now here's Georgia Tech, with the young up-and-coming coach and a cast of talent but no one, recognizable superstar. That guy, Bosh, plays for the Toronto Raptors now, just the kind of early NBA defection that is supposed to derail a program like this. It hasn't.
"I think we have an outstanding chance to win the national championship," Hewitt said.
Do you have one more heart-attack finish left? One more Will Bynum miracle?
"Why not?" Hewitt smiled, like he knows more than he is letting on. "Let's play."
Hang in there, America.
- Will Bynum
- Georgia Tech
- Paul Hewitt