When he arrived on the Georgia Tech campus 18 months ago as a freshman point guard, Jarrett Jack had enough credentials and seasoning to assume he was the new leader of a program on the rise.
After all, Jack had eased into that role seamlessly while playing at four different prep schools in three states over the previous five years, culminating with an impressive season as a fifth-year senior at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts.
But Jack, despite his chatty ways and easygoing charisma, wanted to earn his keep first as a Yellow Jacket. And that first year produced its share of humbling moments, as Jack started every game while finding his way amid the week-to-week brutality that defines an Atlantic Coast Conference schedule.
With just two victories standing between Georgia Tech and its first NCAA championship, and with Jack coming off the performance of a lifetime in Sunday's St. Louis Regional title game against Kansas, is there any doubt that the Yellow Jackets essentially belong to the rugged, 6-foot-3 sophomore from Fort Washington?
"I think [Jack] deferred a little bit [as a freshman]. I don't think he wanted to come in here and step on anyone's toes," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "I didn't ask him to do anything more than be a regular freshman, but when he got more and more comfortable with everybody, his vocal leadership skills really came to the fore.
"There were times last year, particularly on the road, where he had some growing pains. I don't think he reacted well to high-pressure situations, but we put him in the fire and he hung with it. The experience of being a starting freshman point guard in the ACC had an awful lot to do with his success this year. He's been doing it all year, but it was apropos in my mind that he played the big game in that setting."
Without Jack, Georgia Tech would be sitting home watching this weekend's Final Four. All he did against Kansas was rescue the Yellow Jackets on a day when leading scorer B.J. Elder barely played because of an ankle injury and went scoreless, and senior shooting guard Marvin Lewis (Germantown) had one point.
Jack rained a career-high 29 points upon the Jayhawks in a 79-71 overtime victory, including eight of Tech's 13 points in the extra period.
Jack grabbed crucial rebounds. He produced key steals. And, while earning the region's Most Outstanding Player award, he dragged the Yellow Jackets to their second Final Four and first since 1990. He officially began carving his place among the school's great point guards, a list that includes Mark Price, Kenny Anderson, Travis Best and Stephon Marbury.
"It was the culmination of who he is and what he stands for as a player," said Carlton Jack, who watched his son make history on television and is renting a motor home to drive himself and a number of family members to San Antonio to witness the game's main event this weekend.
Said Jarrett Jack: "I came into this season knowing we were going to have a good team, but I don't know if I thought this would happen this fast. I've let the mental part of my game take over more this year. My decision-making has been much better. My development has come full circle."
And for Jack, who watches scouting tapes voraciously and prides himself on knowing basketball history - he has read up extensively on point guards such as Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson and Nate Archibald and talks knowledgeably about the post moves of Jack Sikma and Kevin McHale - the path to Georgia Tech was circuitous.
It started at DeMatha in Hyattsville, where many future college stars have prepared for Division I. But after one year, Billy Edelin, now a sophomore at Syracuse, was inserted ahead of Jack on the varsity, which sent Jack packing for St. Vincent Pallotti in Laurel for a year.
From there, Jack went to Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., for two seasons. That's when the big-time recruiters started to notice this thickly built, long-armed scorer with a knack for making smart passes and a love for mixing it up inside. Jack raised more eyebrows by scoring 56 points in a game, breaking the school record of Tracy McGrady.
Then it was on to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, where he averaged 20.2 points, 10.5 assists, 7.1 rebounds and 3.1 steals, picked Georgia Tech over Michigan State, and came to Atlanta as the player Hewitt calls his "signature recruit."
"By the time I got to college, I had a lot of different experiences. Looking back, I think it helped me," Jack said.
"He had to make adjustments each time and earn the respect of his teammates, earn his own stripes," said Carlton Jack, who owns a cleaning business and played football from 1970 to '74 under legendary coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling.
Jack isn't collecting praise because of one huge game. He has started every game of his collegiate career and elevated his game steadily this season. He finished the regular season as Tech's second-leading scorer, led all ACC guards in rebounding (4.9) and became only the sixth player in school history to record 200 assists in one season.
And Jack is turning it up at the right time. He won an ACC tournament game over North Carolina with a buzzer-beating shot and sealed each of Tech's first two NCAA tournament wins with late free throws. Over his past nine games, Jack has led the Yellow Jackets in scoring (13.3), rebounding (6.3), assists (46) and free throws attempted and made. His assist-to-turnover ratio in the NCAA tournament is a sparkling 2-to-1.
"He's one of those guys that wants the best out of himself and he's going to expect the best out of you," Lewis said. "I can definitely say he is our floor general and he runs the show. I think he's one of those natural-born leaders."
NOTE: Elder returned to practice yesterday after spraining his right ankle early in the St. Louis Regional semifinals against Nevada. He played sparingly against Kansas. Elder wore a protective boot on his foot early in the week, but said it was feeling better and that he would play against Oklahoma State tomorrow night.
At a glance
At Alamodome, San Antonio
Oklahoma State (31-3) vs. Georgia Tech (27-9), 6:07 p.m. Line: Oklahoma State by 5
Connecticut (31-6) vs. Duke (31-5), 8:47 p.m. Line: Connecticut by 2 Monday's championship game
Semifinal winners, 9:18 p.m.
TV: All games on chs. 13, 9
Pointing the way
A look at how Georgia Tech point guard Jarrett Jack has fared in this year's NCAA tournament:
Opp. Pts Reb Ast Result
N. Iowa 6 6 3 W, 65-60
Boston Col. 8 6 6 W, 57-54
Nevada 8 2 3 W, 72-67
Kansas* 29 9 6 W, 79-71
Totals 51 23 18