Georgia Tech flew to New York Sunday for the ACC Tournament, which begins Tuesday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The goal now is to stay there for as long as possible, because, barring the highly unlikely possibility that Tech wins the tournament, the season will be over when the Yellow Jackets are eliminated.
What offers some intrigue for the Jackets, seeded 13th in the 15-team field, is that the draw offers some winnable games. Tech starts with 12th-seeded Boston College, then would face fifth-seeded N.C. State in the quarterfinal and fourth-seeded Clemson in a semifinal.
With a little hesitation, coach Josh Pastner acknowledged as much.
“Obviously, one game at a time – Boston College is hard enough for us – but, I mean, yeah,” said Pastner, when it was pointed out that the draw could be worse. “I would tell you, other teams may say we’re a dangerous team going in. I mean, whether we win on Tuesday, I don’t know, but I would say most teams would say we’re a dangerous team right now.”
Tech won its final two games of the regular season – at home against the aforementioned Wolfpack and in the finale against Wake Forest – and beyond that played well in the previous two games, at No. 1 Virginia and No. 19 Clemson.
After the season-ending elbow injury to point guard Jose Alvarado, the adjustment to move guard Tadric Jackson to the point, the insertion of freshman forwards Evan Cole and Moses Wright into the starting lineup and the continual recovery of center Ben Lammers from an ankle injury have combined to form a lineup that is, at the least, competitive.
“Even the games we’ve lost recently, we’ve been doing better,” Lammers said. “It’s been nice to have these past two games to confirm that, but I think our team’s starting to congeal better, get used to playing with each other. I think that’s going to make us a little more dangerous going into the ACC Tournament now that we’ve actually kind of figured out what each player’s role is and how we can best play with each other.”
So how far can Tech get?
The Tuesday noon matchup with Boston College is entirely winnable. The Jackets lost 80-72 in overtime to the Eagles in Chestnut Hill, Mass., Feb. 4, a game in which Tech led by 13 in the first half before turnovers, poor defensive rebounding and Boston College’s 3-point attack turned the game in the Eagles’ favor.
While Alvarado played 45 minutes in that game and scored 12 points, Lammers was not at full strength and still scored 14 points with 12 rebounds and three blocks.
Tech’s major concern will be stopping first-team All-ACC guard Jerome Robinson (league-high 24.3 points per game in ACC games), Ky Bowman and Jordan Chatman. They could expose the Jackets’ weakness in defending the 3-point arc.
“We probably owe Boston College, because we should have probably won that game,” Lammers said.
The analytics website KenPom gives Tech a 38 percent chance against Boston College, which is trying to get into the NIT but has lost four of its past five.
Should Tech advance, the Jackets will face a team it beat at home last week, N.C. State, in a Wednesday 2 p.m. second-round matchup. The Wolfpack, the No. 5 seed, saw a four-game winning streak end in their defeat at McCamish Pavilion.
The fact that N.C. State was one of six ACC teams that Tech beat is encouraging. However, coach Kevin Keatts’ team probably doesn’t feel like it got a fair shake with the officiating in that 78-75 decision. The Wolfpack were called for 18 fouls to 10 for the Jackets. Keatts was hit with a technical, as was guard Torin Dorn, and both were at a loss to explain the calls after the game.
Also, Tech was 6-for-12 from 3-point range (50 percent), well above its ACC season average of 31.2 percent – dead last in the league – and the Wolfpack were victim to Tech pillars Okogie, Jackson and Lammers all playing at the top of their games, a convergence that hasn’t often happened this season.
On the other hand, the Jackets played a bad first half against N.C. State and this time should be braced for its defensive pressure from the start.
KenPom gives Tech a 9.9 percent chance of upsetting the NCAA Tournament-bound Wolfpack.
Should the Jackets make it into the quarterfinals, they’ll find a familiar opponent waiting for them, fourth-seeded Clemson.
By this point, Tech would be playing its third game in as many days, while the Tigers, having earned the double bye, will be on fresh legs.
Tech would be making history just by making it to the quarterfinals. In the four tournaments in which the ACC Tournament has had 14 or 15 teams (Syracuse and Louisville did not play in 2015 and 2016, respectively, due to self-imposed postseason bans), teams that won in the first round are 0-10 in the second round.
Given the circumstances, Clemson would seem a favorable matchup for Tech. The Tigers won both meetings this season, but the first game was tied inside the final minute (a 72-70 decision at McCamish Jan. 28) and the second was tied with 3½ minutes to play (a 75-67 win for the Tigers at Littlejohn Coliseum Feb. 24).
Tech led both games by double digits. There might not be a team in the field that the Jackets would be more eager to face.
Tech’s fatigue issues in such a game would be exacerbated by the fact that Lammers, Okogie and Jackson would all likely have played 35-plus minutes in the previous two games.
KenPom does not smile upon Tech’s chances in a potential matchup with the Tigers, giving the Jackets a two percent chance. From there, Tech is projected to have a .2 percent chance in the semifinal, most likely against No. 1 Virginia, and then a chance less than .01 percent to win the whole thing.
“Even if it was a different (bracket), either way, we know every team’s beatable,” Lammers said. “There’s not, like, any kind of major powerhouse that’s impossible to beat. Our team is just ready to kind of show that we’ve still got a little life in us.”