“He’s going to give you all he’s got all the time,” guard Jose Alvarado said. “Everyone talks about how I’m the energy booster or energy giver. It’s the same thing with him. He gives me energy, and I give him energy.”
After losing to the Cavaliers to drop to 9-7, Tech’s game at Clemson is highly significant for the Jackets’ teetering NCAA tournament hopes. Of the remaining eight regular-season games, Clemson and Virginia Tech are the only opponents that are being projected to make it into the tournament field. Barely above .500, Tech needs all the impressive wins it can get.
On Thursday, the AJC asked three bracket experts to rate how crucial the game is for Tech from a tournament perspective on a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 being most crucial. Dave Ommen of Bracketville rated it an 8, noting that not only do the Jackets need more wins against projected tournament teams, but that they’re also 1-4 on the road, an important statistic for the tournament selection committee. Joe Lunardi of ESPN called it an 8.5. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports saw it as a 10.
Into that fray, enter Usher. Since becoming eligible in December 2019 after his transfer from USC, the guard/forward from Wheeler High has been an energy source, revving up teammates with his bouncy enthusiasm but also making plays with his high-octane motor on the court, racing down the floor in transition, winning loose balls and using his explosiveness to throw down dunks and block shots.
That trait will be necessary for a team whose legs and spirits may need fortification. Beyond energy, though, Usher also has become a much more efficient player. His assist/turnover ratio has flipped, from 49/58 last season to 44/32 this season. Against Virginia, he contributed four assists against no turnovers to go with 12 points, three rebounds and a blocked shot. Among other ways, Usher has shown his vision and creativity by threading bounce passes to teammates cutting to the basket for layups.
More than that, where Usher often made wild forays to the basket last season, the drives are more under control and generally more accurate than a year ago.
“He’s become a good basketball player,” coach Josh Pastner said. “He’s a good passer, he understands the game. He’s obviously an awesome athlete. He’s still got a lot of work to do to continue to improve, but he’s really done a nice job.”
He has made 58.4% of his two-point field-goal tries this season compared with 47.2% last season. His accuracy from 3-point range likewise has increased, from 20.5% to 32.2%.
In Tech’s first meeting with Clemson on Jan. 20, Usher went for 21 points on 5-for-8 shooting from 3-point range in the Jackets’ 83-65 rout of the Tigers. The 3-point baskets were a career high, and the 21 points marked a high in the Tech portion of his career.
Last season, Usher’s poor shooting from the perimeter was detrimental not only in that he wasn’t especially accurate, but also because defenses sagged back on him, wanting him to shoot and making it more difficult to get the ball into the paint. Usher worked with assistant coach Anthony Wilkins to improve his form and build his confidence in his perimeter shooting.
“I think anyone in a sporting situation would take that as a little disrespect,” Usher said. “I’ve got to look myself in the mirror and be able to tell my teammates that when they kick out to me, I’m going to make that shot.”
Usher also credited the instruction of Pastner, whom Usher said has been hard on him but in a loving way.
In practice, when he dials it up too high, Usher said that Pastner will admonish him to “be a basketball player, not just an athlete, because he thinks I’m a good athlete, and I can get caught up in just trying to burn up and down the court and wanting to tear the rim down every time.”
Pastner, Usher went to say, “is really helping me become a more controlled player and, off the court, as a human being, as a young man.”