Georgia Tech basketball is standing on the doorstep of making more history in its unpredictable, inexplicable season.
If the Yellow Jackets (19-15) can find a way to beat Mississippi at 9 p.m. on Tuesday in Oxford, they’ll have their 20th win of the year against Division I competition. That would produce the first back-to-back 20-win seasons since 2003-05. That would be just another remarkable milestone for a team that has already:
▪ Set a program record for the most home wins (17).
▪ Beaten ranked teams like North Carolina, Florida State, Notre Dame and VCU.
▪ Made head coach Josh Pastner the winningest first-year head coach in school history.
But Ole Miss won’t be an easy mark for the Yellow Jackets. The Rebels (22-13) have won four of their past five games and stared down Syracuse 85-80 in the Carrier Dome in the second round of the NIT. Head coach Andy Kennedy’s team knows how to negotiate the NIT, having reached Madison Square Garden and the Final Four on two other occasions.
“The reality is there are only a handful of teams still playing after this weekend,” Kennedy said. “We get an opportunity to continue to grow and gain experience. Getting to New York City is a special moment.”
Georgia Tech is playing in the NIT for the ninth time. The Yellow Jackets have reached Madison Square Garden twice — being eliminated in the second round when the entire tournament was played there and getting to the final in 1971. The Yellow Jackets were stopped one game short in 2003 and 2016.
“Their team is very good,” Pastner said. “To go in a beat Syracuse is very hard to do. We’ll have to play even better than we played (Sunday).”
Like Georgia Tech, Ole Miss has been an overachieving team. The Rebels were picked to finish ninth in the SEC and wound up tied for fifth. They have an All-SEC performer in senior forward Sebastian Saiz, who averages 15 points and 11.3 rebounds. He recorded his 22nd double-double (31st of his career) against Syracuse.
The Ole Miss attack also gets 16.8 points from junior Deandre Burnett and 14.9 points from Terence Davis, and freshman Breein Tyree averages 7.4 points. Burnett made five 3-pointers against Syracuse.
Ole Miss averages 78.3 points, compared to 67.2 points for Georgia Tech. The Rebels shoot 42.4 percent from the field and 35.2 percent on 3-pointers. They are comparable to Louisville, with long, athletic players.
“We’re going to have to really defend,” Pastner said. “They’ve got really good players. They’ve got a couple of guys who can really shoot it. We need to play really well if we’re going to have a chance to get to New York.”
Likewise, Ole Miss will run into a Georgia Tech team that’s playing at a high level. The Yellow Jackets have gotten their legs back after a grueling ACC schedule and were energized in wins over Indiana and Belmont.
“I think we’re playing at a high level,” Pastner said. “Look at the numbers defensively. We’re guarding at a high level.”
Georgia Tech allowed only 63 points to Indiana and just 57 to Belmont. Indiana shot 37.9 percent from the field and 26.3 percent on 3s. Belmont shot 33.3 percent from the floor and on 3s.
“We’re going to be aggressive,” senior forward Quinton Stephens said. “I don’t care who we’re playing, we’re going to be aggressive and we’re going to have fun playing.”
Stephens has been playing very well. During the past three games, he’s averaged 18.3 points and nine rebounds. Josh Okogie has scored at least 14 points in seven straight games, and Ben Lammers has produced double-doubles in the first two NIT games.
A major question revolves around how Georgia Tech will fare on the road in such a demanding situation. The Yellow Jackets are just 2-10 on the road, with wins at VCU and N.C. State. Among the road losses was a close call at Virginia Tech, blowout losses at Duke and Syracuse and other workmanlike efforts. Ole Miss is 13-5 at home and hasn’t lost in Oxford since Jan. 28 against No. 5 Baylor in a non-conference game.
“We haven’t been as good on the road as we have been at home and part of that is due to our home crowd willing us to victory,” Pastner said. “To take the next step, we have to win another road game.”