Is Georgia Tech doomed without Wright? No. Here’s why

Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright dunks during the first half of the Jackets' February game against Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.
Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright dunks during the first half of the Jackets' February game against Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.

Credit: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Credit: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Not to sound like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but there is an example, and not an especially distant one, of Georgia Tech losing its leading scorer for much of an NCAA Tournament and still advancing to the national championship game.

B.J. Elder of Madison hurt his ankle three minutes into the 2004 Sweet 16 game against Nevada. He tried to play in the regional final against Kansas, working 12 minutes. He played 19 minutes against Oklahoma State in the Final Four. For the season, Elder averaged 14.9 points, most among Yellow Jackets. Over three consecutive NCAA games, he scored zero, zero and two points. Tech won all three games by the narrowest of margins and played UConn for the title.

It helped that Jarrett Jack, Tech’s best player, averaged 15.7 points, 4.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds over those three games. It helped that Will Bynum, a reserve, scored the decisive basket in all three. It helped that those Jackets had grown so skilled at winning close games that they prevailed by five, three, five, seven (in overtime) and two points in their run to the final. It’s not called March Madness because form always holds. Seventeen years ago, Tech got next to nothing from their leading scorer over three hairbreadth games and somehow won them all.

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It was learned Tuesday night that the contemporary Jackets will be without Moses Wright for their NCAA opener against Loyola Chicago. Should they advance to Round 2, the opponent will surely be No. 1 seed Illinois. Wright will miss that game, too. The reason: COVID-19. This would appear to be something approaching a worst-case-scenario. But, as someone who covered every minute of Tech’s six games in the 2004 tournament, not many among us expected it to stick around long with Elder hobbled.

Elder made second-team all-ACC that season. Wright was the ACC player of the year. Yes, that’s a difference. Elder was a wing, and Tech could cover for his absence by deploying Jack and Bynum in tandem and sliding Marvin Lewis over. (It also had Isma’il Muhammad, the dynamic off-the-bench presence.) After Wright, Tech’s tallest starter is Jordan Usher, who’s 6-foot-7. Wright’s backup is Rodney Howard, the Georgia transfer who averages 7.6 minutes and 1.6 points.

Tech uses multiple defenses. The guess is that trying to play Loyola man-to-man without Wright will be a no-go. The Ramblers’ center is Cameron Krutwig, who made third-team All-American. The good news: Tech tends to be better when it plays zone, their version being essentially a morphing matchup. Loyola won’t score 100 points Friday; according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, it was 49th in offensive efficiency, the lowest such number of any team in KenPom’s overall top 20.

The problem will come when Tech has the ball. Loyola was No. 1 in defensive efficiency, and Tech is missing a man who averages 17.4 points. It’s possible to imagine the Jackets winning if Usher, who has averaged 15.4 over the past five games, has another big day. It’s not possible to imagine them winning if Michael Devoe isn’t hitting.

Loyola plays at a sedate pace. Tech will try to speed things up. (A big man is less essential in an open-court game.) Jose Alvarado’s ball pressure will be mandatory. The Jackets might well deploy Usher as a nominal center and play three guards, Bubba Parham being the third, as opposed to stationing Howard down low.

In sum, there are ways to win this game without Wright. Granted, there’d be more ways with him, but you play with what you have. We might never know, even with the Jackets’ attention to protocols and their weeklong Greensboro bubble, how Wright came to test positive. We’re still in a pandemic. How does anybody test positive? (We should have known something was up when their charter flight was delayed eight hours Sunday.) He’s in isolation in Indianapolis and is said to be asymptomatic. He might be able to return if the Jackets reach the Sweet 16.

They were already a slight underdog against Loyola, but this is an 8-versus-9 game, which means there’s not really a favorite. We shouldn’t dismiss their chances out of hand. As for what might happen in Round 2 against Illinois minus Wright … well, let me get back to you on that.

In the meantime, the Jackets can buoy their spirits by recalling Tech’s perseverance back in the day. If they require personal testimony, Elder shouldn’t be hard to find. He’s their associate director of player personnel.

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