ATLANTA -- After learning last week that All-American forward James Forrest had broken his hand in an early-morning automobile accident, Georgia Tech basketball coach Bobby Cremins figured a black cloud was hovering over his team again.
It had dispersed briefly earlier in the month when the Yellow Jackets received word that Stephon Marbury, considered by many to be the nation's best high school point guard, was heading to a program that produced Mark Price and Kenny Anderson and now had Travis Best.
But it had returned, bringing more bad news to a coach whose run of what he calls "Irish luck" was famous among his peers, a man who brought the Yellow Jackets to prominence and took them to the Final Four in 1990. This piece of news seemed more in line with the previous two years, when Georgia Tech had made fast and disappointing exits from the postseason.
"I did get really uptight," Cremins recalled yesterday of the telephone call he received from Forrest, who was involved in a four-car pileup on the interstate after coming back from watching a former high school teammate play in Macon. "I got upset for about a minute. Then I thought, 'Thank God he's alive.' I'm not going to fall into the pits like I did one time, where you get depressed and it gets worse and worse."
That was two years ago, when Cremins announced he was returning to his alma mater, South Carolina. His decision came shortly after Georgia Tech won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and within days of his team being upset by Southern University in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
After being introduced at a news conference in Columbia, S.C., Cremins had second thoughts and sheepishly returned to Georgia Tech. The decision was costly; it only served to intensify expectations that he was trying to get away from Tech and helped other coaches in recruiting against Cremins.
"Part of it has been our fault. We've definitely been inconsistent," said Cremins, alluding to last year's 16-13 record that included a first-round loss at Siena in the NIT. "We've had some great wins and some bad losses. We created a monster with the great teams we had. To be perfectly honest, we slipped a little bit."
With Forrest out for at least another couple of weeks and possibly for the season if the broken bone doesn't heal, and with two freshmen in the starting lineup, there are some around here who are pointing to next year when Marbury arrives. And there are others, like Cremins, who are pointing to today.
Georgia Tech (12-6, 5-3) is pointing to its 1:30 p.m. game against fifth-ranked Maryland (17-3, 7-1) at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, hoping to determine whether back-to-back victories over Florida State and Clemson without Forrest were only a mirage. The No. 21 Yellow Jackets have remained in the national rankings mainly because of the past and not the present.
"It's been very disappointing," said senior Best, when asked about everything that has happened since the Yellow Jackets upset North Carolina to win the ACC Tournament.
"All your life you sit there and watch the NCAA Tournament. After we made the Sweet 16s my freshman year, I thought we'd make a run at the Final Four. Hopefully, if we can hold the fort until James comes back, we'll be able to make some noise in March."
The last three years has given Cremins, 47, a chance to reevaluate his life and his approach to coaching. The situation with South Carolina, a move that many of his friends quietly second-guessed before he pulled out, made him realize that he will stay at Georgia Tech for the rest of his career. "I will never leave again on my own," he said.
The injuries last season to Forrest and guard Drew Barry, which contributed to the Yellow Jackets getting off to a poor start in the ACC, and the recent off-court injury to the 6-8, 243-pound forward, has made Cremins realize that he has to have better depth to be successful.
"Injuries can really kill you," said Cremins. "One of the things that I've found out is that the best discipline [for players] sometimes is to let someone else jump in there."
Those who played in Forrest's rather large shadow -- he was averaging nearly 20 points and more than eight rebounds when he was injured -- are making the most of their opportunities.
Freshman forward Michael Maddox had 14 points and 11 rebounds in the team's win at Florida State, its first over the Seminoles since they joined the ACC. Sophomore center Eddie Elisma, who has been plagued by inconsistency, scored 25 points and had nine rebounds in the two games.
"I can relate their situation to when Walt Williams went down with a broken leg for us," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "You probably play with more emotion, but they are still a very good basketball team."
Maybe not what they were four years ago, or even eight years ago. But after going through emotional ups and downs that ended with the death last spring of Frank McGuire, his former coach and mentor, Cremins seems revived and relaxed.
"I think we're ready to make another run," he said.