Can Georgia Tech make NCAA tournament? Experts believe so

In a media poll, Georgia Tech was picked to finish ninth in the ACC, which was not a terribly optimistic outlook for the Yellow Jackets.

The Jackets would seem to have the materials for a finish above their projection, particularly given that they finished fifth last season and return four starters and six of the seven players who played the most minutes on that team.

And while Tech players have spoken with confidence in their ability to get to the tournament, Jackets fans might be pleased to know that expert observers have similar belief. Particularly, three ACC Network analysts who spoke with media on a videoconference Wednesday have higher hopes for the Jackets than many of their media peers. Carlos Boozer, Dalen Cuff and Luke Hancock all touted Tech as a legitimate contender for an NCAA tournament berth.

However much the pandemic can be put aside as the looming specter over the season, Tech’s hunt for its first tournament berth since 2010 is the underlying drama of coach Josh Pastner’s fifth season.

“I can’t remember where I exactly had them on the ballot, but they’re in that group, five through eight, in my mind,” said Cuff, who anchors the ACC Network’s “Nothing But Net” program. “If they can get closer to that four-five-six spot, they could find themselves in the tournament. I think this is the strongest group Josh has had.”

Boozer likewise saw Tech fitting somewhere between fifth and eighth, behind Virginia, Duke, Florida State and North Carolina. Louisville, Syracuse, Miami and N.C. State also are expected to compete in that neighborhood.

“But you never know, they could surprise some people and make a jump this year,” said Boozer, an All-American at Duke who went on to be a two-time NBA all-star. “I do like their team a lot. I think they’re a team that can make the tournament.”

All three saw forward Moses Wright’s role as critical as he replaces center James Banks, a two-time selection to the ACC’s all-defensive team.

“They’ve had good center play, so Moses Wright will have to emerge, and they’ll have to have some of the younger players play as well in the frontcourt,” Cuff said. “But I think overall last year, that team – one through five – was as good as anybody else in the conference. But once they got into six, seven and eight, that’s where the drop-off was.”

Hancock, who was the Final Four’s most outstanding player in Louisville’s 2013 national championship, called Wright an X-factor and compared him with his Cardinals teammate Montrezl Harrell, who just completed his fifth NBA season.

“He plays with that insane motor,” Hancock said of Wright. “He’s great on the offensive glass, he’s improved every year.”

The backcourt of guards Jose Alvarado and leading scorer Michael Devoe – who have started a combined total of 130 games – is one of the best in the country, Cuff said. Alvarado earned All-ACC third-team honors last season after averaging 14.4 points, 4.0 assists and 3.4 rebounds.

“Guard play is always critical in college basketball, and you have two of the best in the business there,” Cuff said. “I like what Jordan Usher has added.”

Said Boozer, “Their backcourt is unbelievable. They put a lot of points on the board.”

Tech begins its season Wednesday against Georgia State at McCamish Pavilion, a year that will incorporate far more variables than perhaps any that has preceded it because of COVID-19. But, if the Jackets can play at least the bulk of their 27-game schedule, they could well reach the tournament. Among power-conference teams, only Rutgers (1991), Washington State (2008) and Boston College (2009) have had longer droughts than the Jackets. Rutgers was in strong position to make last season’s tournament before it was canceled.

At least from the perspective of three experts who have seen the Jackets play a lot, it won’t be a surprise if they are in similar position when March arrives.

“I think this is a big test for Josh Pastner to put some things together and finish in that five spot in the league,” Hancock said. “I don’t think they have quite enough talent to go beat the top four big dogs this year, but I think Georgia Tech could be right on the door there as the next one. I’m impressed, and I think they’ve got a lot of talent.”