Georgia Tech’s push for NCAA berth continues against Syracuse

After securing the first road win over a ranked opponent in coach Josh Pastner’s tenure, Georgia Tech now needs to keep pushing forward. Now widely considered a bubble team in NCAA tournament projections after upsetting No. 16 Virginia Tech on Tuesday in Blacksburg, Va., the Yellow Jackets have to add to their résumé.

Tech’s next step is Saturday at McCamish Pavilion against Syracuse.

“This is a blueblood,” coach Josh Pastner said. “This is one of the best teams in the history of college basketball. If you can’t get fired up to play Syracuse, considering what’s at stake, then you’re not a competitor.”

Tech enters the game at 12-8 overall and 8-6 in the ACC, winners of its past three. After Thursday’s games, the Jackets were ranked No. 40 in NET and No. 33 in KenPom. On Friday morning, CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm had Tech as his last team into the field. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi placed the Jackets as his No. 6 team outside of the field of 68.

Forward Moses Wright, for one, has tried to avoid tournament projections. He said that, when the team was in Blacksburg to play the Hokies, he was watching the Duke-Syracuse game Monday night when a “last four in” and “first four out” graphic flashed on the screen.

“That’s the only time I’ve ever seen it,” he said.

Whether they’re barely in or barely out, the Jackets have scarce margin for error. But, with two games coming against teams in the top 60 in NET – Syracuse is No. 56, Duke (Tech’s opponent Tuesday in the regular-season home finale) is No. 49 – Pastner’s team can solidify its case for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2010. Among power-conference schools, only three teams (Boston College, Rutgers and Washington State) have been waiting longer. (Rutgers, which was poised to make the field last year before the tournament was canceled because of COVID-19, looks to be in good shape for its first berth since 1991, the longest absence among power-conference schools.)

“We don’t need any help from anybody else,” Pastner. “We’ve just got to do our part.”

Wright may be a particular key against Syracuse. He scored a career-high 33 points with 10 rebounds against the Orange last year in a 79-72 defeat at Syracuse. He scored a game-high 26 points with 10 rebounds against the Hokies on Tuesday.

“I kind of remember it,” Wright said of the game at Syracuse. “The one part I do remember is when I pump-faked and (Syracuse forward) Elijah Hughes came down on my head. That’s a big part I remember.”

Wright has been on a hot streak lately. In the past four games, he has made 31 of 40 field-goal tries (77.5%). In the six games before that, he was 36-for-91 (39.6%).

“I felt like I was being rushed. I was rushing my own shot a lot in everything I was doing,” said Wright, who ranks fifth in the ACC in scoring, at 16.8 points per game, and fifth in field-goal percentage (53.2%). “So just going back and looking at film and just telling myself I need to slow it down when I make any moves.”

The Jackets will need to be particularly wary of Syracuse guard Buddy Boeheim, who leads the ACC in 3-pointers, with 43. As Wright dinged the Orange last season, so did Boeheim in the teams’ first meeting of that season, making six of 13 3-pointers in amassing 26 points, then a career high.

Tech also is angling to improve its seeding for the ACC tournament. Going into the weekend, the Jackets are eighth at 8-6. They’re sandwiched by their next two opponents, Syracuse below at 7-6 and Duke above at 9-6. Finishing between fifth and seventh would allow Tech to play a team that had played a first-round game the previous day, enhancing its chances for a second-round win. Finishing fourth or better – which remains a possibility – would give the Jackets a double-bye.