5 things to know about Georgia Tech’s opener against Georgia State

Georgia Tech players (from left) Jose Alvarado, Bubba Parham, Khalid Moore and Moses Wright react as teammate Niko Broadway makes a reverse layup for a basket in the final minutes of a 82-54 victory over Morehouse in a NCAA college basketball game on Tuesday, January 28, 2020, in Atlanta.   Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Georgia Tech players (from left) Jose Alvarado, Bubba Parham, Khalid Moore and Moses Wright react as teammate Niko Broadway makes a reverse layup for a basket in the final minutes of a 82-54 victory over Morehouse in a NCAA college basketball game on Tuesday, January 28, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Georgia Tech opens the season Wednesday night against Georgia State, the first step in its pursuit of the team’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2010. The Yellow Jackets and Panthers, in their first regular-season meeting since December 2008, tip off at 9 p.m. Here are five things to watch.

1. Happy to be here

Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado said this week that he was “super excited” to start the season against Georgia State on Wednesday night before thinking better of it. On second thought, he said, “excited” was probably not even the word for it.

A season that was very much in doubt since COVID-19 caused the cancellation of the 2020 postseason has finally arrived.

“To be honest, I’m just glad we’re just playing because at one point during this year, people were just concerned about if there was going to be a season or not,” Alvarado said. “So I’m just glad that we’ve got a schedule out there, and we’re going to follow it as much as possible and (hope) everything goes well.”

Alvarado, a third-team All-ACC pick last season as a junior, has a lot at stake. It’s his senior season on a team loaded with veterans and poised to chase an NCAA tournament berth. And, going forward, nothing is guaranteed. Several teams already will have to miss games because they have been placed in quarantine because of positive COVID-19 tests.

Mindful of the opportunity in front of them, coach Josh Pastner told the AJC that he gave his team an unusual reminder.

“Just have fun,” Pastner said he told the team Tuesday. “Everyone wants to win, but I also want you to have fun, too. Because a few months ago, we didn’t know if there’d be a season. Let’s have fun, let’s enjoy every possession because it has been shown that things can be taken away.”

2. Player to watch

A year after earning consideration as the ACC’s most improved player, forward Moses Wright is poised to make another jump.

“His overall game is better,” Pastner said. “He’s continued to get better. That’s part of what we have to do to survive, is for us to get guys better.”

Wright finished his junior season averaging 13 points and seven rebounds while shooting 53.1% from the floor, good for third in the ACC. As a sophomore, his line was 6.7 points and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 47% from the field.

Wright said earlier in the preseason that he had particularly been working on his free-throw shooting – he was 61.7% from the line last season – and his jump shot from 17 feet and out.

One player whom fans won’t be able to see immediately is freshman guard Tristan Maxwell, who continues to be sidelined with a foot injury suffered in a pickup game in August. He has begun doing individual work in practice, but has not been cleared for full practice. After that occurs, Pastner said, he’ll need two weeks to regain his conditioning.

3. Tough matchup for Jackets

Where teams normally play exhibition games to help develop cohesion before the season opener, the Jackets have a rigorous opening challenge in Georgia State.

The Panthers were picked to win the East Division of the Sun Belt Conference (the league was split into two divisions this season to limit traveling) after finishing 19-13 las season and returning four starters. Two of them, guards Kane Williams and Justin Roberts, were named to the Sun Belt preseason all-conference team.

Pastner freely admitted he wouldn’t have scheduled Georgia State before COVID-19 torpedoed Tech’s budget and compelled him to schedule games that required less travel and didn’t include payments to the opposition to come to McCamish Pavilion. Tech has little to gain and much to lose in playing a local rival such as Georgia State. But, Georgia State is close and with a three-game series arranged (Tech will visit Georgia State once, when it opens its new arena in 2022) that comes with no payments either way, basketball fans win.

“I’m excited about the game because we’ve got a lot of respect for that program,” said Rob Lanier, Georgia State’s second-year coach.

Tech has won 14 consecutive games in the series.

4. How the game came together

While the Tech-GSU game originally was scheduled for Dec. 16, the game almost was not played. The game could not be played Dec. 16 because the ACC was planning to have a league game on or near that date. As Pastner put the non-conference schedule together, including a multi-team event (MTE) in Orlando, Fla., there was no place for the Panthers.

However, the event fell apart, leaving Tech scrambling to find new opponents.

Georgia State and Mercer volunteered to form their own MTE with Tech, with the Jackets facing the Bears at McCamish Pavilion on Friday and the Panthers playing Mercer in Macon on Monday. However, to make it happen, Pastner needed the help of women’s coach Nell Fortner, who had scheduled to play Georgia State at McCamish Pavilion on the same evening (Wednesday). To make the game work (Fox Sports South was wanting a 9 p.m. game), Pastner sought Fortner’s assistance.

Fortner obliged, moving the women’s game to noon.

“All credit goes to coach Fortner,” Pastner said. “Without her giving us the ability to play in the evening, we wouldn’t have been able to play in the game.”

5. Different look at McCamish

McCamish Pavilion’s seating configuration has been altered to enable each team to be socially distanced while on the bench. The team benches and scorer’s table were moved to the opposite side of the court, where the radio tables and courtside seating have been.

Several rows of seats were taken out, both along the sideline and behind the baselines, to enable players and staff to sit while distanced six feet apart. The benches wrap around the sideline and past the portals at the corners of the court.

The school has capped attendance at 1,200, with 900 seats reserved for Tech students and the remaining 300 to guests of the team and athletic department, leaving no tickets available for purchase. If students don’t claim all 900 tickets, faculty and staff will be eligible to receive them. Attendees will be spread throughout the lower bowl.

The coaching staff will look different, too. ACC coaches voted to do away with suits and coats and ties in favor of polo shirts and slacks.

“I actually like the coat and tie,” Pastner said.