If you’re like me, you probably don’t know much — if anything — about Georgia Tech basketball, Northwestern’s opponent in a very important Big Ten-ACC Challenge game on Tuesday night. There’s plenty we can learn from doing some basic research (check out our usual How to Watch/Preview post, which I’d recommend reading before you read this), but with this game being so critical for the Wildcats, we wanted to get an insider perspective on Josh Pastner’s Yellow Jackets. Big thanks to Robert Pensa, a staff writer for the GT SB Nation site From the Rumble Seat, for answering our questions.
Inside NU: Does the Georgia Tech fanbase feel like the team is headed in the right direction under Josh Pastner? Can he get GT back to being a solid ACC team with NBA talent like it was in the 2000s?
Robert Pensa: After many were initially skeptical about the hire, Tech fans have for the most part completely bought into Josh Pastner at this point. First of all, the results on the court speak for themselves. After being projected to not win a single ACC game last season, Tech extremely outperformed expectations, earning Josh ACC Coach of the Year. In addition to the wins, Pastner and the rest of the staff have already shown an intensity on the recruiting trail that the previous staff was lacking. Freshman Jose Alvarado was a big recruiting win out of NYC and four-star 2018 commit Mike Devoe looks like the real deal, with his stock still rising. The staff has built strong relationships and is deeply involved in the recruitment of multiple four and five stars for the 2019 class. With so much to offer as an ACC school in midtown Atlanta, Pastner has Georgia Tech well on its way to pumping out NBA talent like it used to.
INU: What's the deal with the suspensions for Tadric Jackson and Josh Okogie? What will the Yellow Jackets be getting back with Jackson's return and what will they be missing without Okogie against Northwestern?
RP: The story behind their suspensions is a bit of a wild one, but the impact of missing them is definitely big. Alongside Ben Lammers, Jackson and Okogie are among the top three players on this Georgia Tech roster. Jackson, who was a highly touted recruit out of high school, finally had his breakout season last year, averaging 12.1 points per game on 45% shooting. In his first game back from suspension this year, he poured in 14 for the Jackets. Although he can be streaky, he’s one of the few players who can generate his own shot on offense and is particularly good in transition. The Okogie suspension will likely end up being irrelevant, as he is expected to be out until conference play anyway after dislocating his finger in an exhibition game against Georgia State. Missing him is definitely huge for the Jackets. Last season, he earned a spot on the ACC All-Freshman team after averaging 16 points per game. He can score in a variety of ways, but is particularly effective at attacking the basket and getting to the line. Even as a freshman, he was the leader of this team due to his unselfishness and high basketball IQ. The return of Jackson provides a much needed scoring boost, but there’s still no overstating the impact of missing Okogie.
INU: So, this Ben Lammers guy seems legit. What makes him so effective?
RP: Where do I begin? Watching his development from his freshman season has been truly spectacular. On the defensive end, he has an incredible knack for timing his blocks. He often waits until the last second to leave his defender and provide the help side defense. He’s rarely out of position and uses his incredible length to slow down nearly any offensive attacker. On the offensive end is where Ben has developed the most. Two seasons ago, he had barely any offensive game and averaged just 3 points per game his sophomore season. The arrival of assistant coach Eric Reveno did wonders for his game. He developed an array of post moves and a nearly automatic mid range jumper. If you can’t stop him, you don’t want to put him on the line, as he’s shooting over 80% there this season. The only thing missing from his game is a three-point jumper, something that was discussed during the offseason, but we haven’t seen broken out yet.
INU: What are the biggest keys to success for Georgia Tech?
RP: I have two keys to success for the Jackets. First off, they will need to find some offense outside of Lammers. In the first two games of the season, Lammers provided 19 of Tech’s 40 made field goals. However, in the last two games, the Jackets have started to get contributions from others. Freshmen Jose Alvarado and Curtis Haywood both had career highs in the last game against North Texas, in addition to the already mentioned contribution from the recently-free-from-suspension Tadric Jackson. Against a strong offensive team like Northwestern, the Jackets will have to have strong offensive days from multiple players, especially without Josh Okogie. The next key to the game is for Tech to limit Northwestern’s effectiveness from behind the arc. Through four games, the Jackets have the nation's 15th best two-point field goal defense, but rank outside the top 200 in three-point defense. Tech cannot win a three-point shooting battle and need this game to be played inside the paint.
INU: Score prediction for GT-NU?
RP: This game is difficult to predict, given that both fanbases are still feeling their teams out. After a valiant effort against UCLA, the Jackets put up a dud against Bethune Cookman, narrowly avoiding a disastrous loss before delivering two stronger performances. The second half of the last game against North Texas was probably the best Tech has looked all season, the return of Tadric Jackson no doubt playing a role in that. The Jackets set a school record for home wins last season and I think the crowd shows up for this one, being the first big home game of the season. I’m going with a Tech win, 68-64.