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Lefty's longest shot 

He could have hung up his whistle after Len Bias died at Maryland or when he was canned at James Madison. But Lefty Driesell couldn't quit coaching -- and now Georgia State is going to the NCAA tournament.

The coach has seen this before. The ecstatic fans. The microphones. The endless interviews with the same insipid questions. Hell, yes, he plans on going far in the NCAA tournament. How's the Final Four sound? Of course his team would have made the tournament even if they lost the conference championship. We were 25 and 4! How they gonna keep us out?

Doesn't matter, though; they won anyway. And handily, too. Got off to a cold shooting start but warmed up quick from there. Took advantage of Troy State's tired defense and turned up their own. Three players -- Kevin Morris, Shernard Long and Thomas Terrell -- together made 58 of Georgia State's 79 points. And afterward, after kissing his wife and signing some autographs and dodging the slaps that make him wince (spinal surgery was just two months ago), he steps onto a stool under the rim. Somebody hands him the net and he drapes it around his neck. He raises his arm and gives the victory sign. He smiles.

Downstairs in the press room, 20 reporters and cameramen wait. The coach is ushered in with his two seniors, Morris and Long. Morris, who had never heard of Georgia State when he played for Georgia Tech as a freshman, is wearing the net now. The coach is still grinning.

"This," he says, "is a very satisfying year."

Lefty Driesell is 69, an age when other men are playing golf, settling accounts, taking stock. The coach will have none of this. He lives just off a golf course, but he doesn't golf. Books fill shelf space in his office -- including one with a yellowed dust jacket that's titled How to Coach Fast Break Basketball -- but, Driesell says, "I don't read." Pictures of every college team he's coached line the wall -- nine from Davidson, 17 from Maryland, nine from James Madison, four (and counting) from Georgia State -- but Driesell will not say what 40 years of coaching college hoops have taught him. All he'll say is that he's better.

"I would hope I'm a better coach than I was when I first started," he says, the logic so obvious to him he can't quite hide his irritation.

This week, Lefty will lead the Georgia State Panthers against Wisconsin in Round 1 of the NCAA tournament. And if they beat the Badgers, a team that has lost five of its last 10 games, they'll likely face Maryland in Round 2.

The University of Maryland, of course, was the program Driesell rescued from obscurity, the one he built into a powerhouse that still never made it to the Final Four, the one from which he was summarily ousted in 1986. During his 17 years at Maryland, Driesell would stride onto the floor of Cole Field House, raise two fingers to the sky in a V, and 14,500 faithful would yell the roof off the place.

But that was a long time ago. In fact, Driesell has brought a team to the NCAA tournament only once in the last 14 years. That was at James Madison in 1994, and just long enough to get beat in the first round. But this team -- this team could be different. If Lefty Driesell goes anywhere in this year's tournament, he should send a bouquet of flowers to JMU, thanking them for firing him.

Four years ago, Dr. Carl V. Patton, the president of Georgia State University, was losing patience with his men's basketball program. GSU, after all, had the losingest Division I basketball program in the country.

"We'd only gone to the NCAA once," Patton says. "I was just getting fed up with losing. I feel that sports isn't everything, but if you put a team out on the floor, they ought to have a chance at winning."

As Patton and his crew mulled over their options, they heard on ESPN that Lefty had just been canned at James Madison. They put their first call into Driesell while he and his wife were driving to their beach house in Delaware.

"I said, 'Where's Georgia State?' " Joyce Driesell remembers. "He said, 'I don't know.' "

But there it was -- a chance to turn around another program. No, it wasn't Maryland, but James Madison hadn't been either. It was a team, and that was enough.

Sportswriter John Feinstein recalls what Ralph Willard of Holy Cross told him once: "If you're a coach, you need a gym, you need a ball and you need kids. And if that's what you love doing, that's all you need."

"Lefty," Feinstein says, "is that way."

There was an added draw: One of the Driesells' daughters and her family lived outside Atlanta. It was settled. Mr. and Mrs. Driesell bought a house in Duluth. And on March 26, 1997, he accepted the head coaching position at GSU, a school that in 34 years had had just four winning seasons. Lefty Driesell had faced some challenges before, but nothing like this.

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