Uncertainty surrounds Georgia Tech basketball opener in China

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner.
Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner. AP

Georgia Tech and UCLA went halfway around the world to open the college basketball season in the annual Pac-12 China game. But since the teams arrived in Shanghai, much of the news has been about things that happened off the court.

Three UCLA players were taken into custody and questioned about an alleged shoplifting incident at a Louis Vuitton store adjacent to the team hotel. The three freshman players involved will not be allowed to play, and they will serve 20 days under house arrest, according to published reports.

Georgia Tech had three players questioned and cleared in the same incident, but other issues have arisen. A CBS Sports article identified the person who claims he provided gifts to Tadric Jackson and Josh Okogie that resulted in violations that the school self-reported to the NCAA.

That individual, Ron Bell, a former confidant of Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner, claims the coach knew about the gifts and other additional money. Pastner said he would have no comment until the NCAA completed its portion of the investigation and determined its punishment.

The breaking news puts a cloud over what had been a positive trip. The Yellow Jackets had a chance to meet Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Alibaba and co-owner of the NBA Brooklyn Nets. They’ve taken a cruise on the Huangpu River, been exposed to a foreign culture – and been gawked at because of their height – and tried to cram into the rides at the Shanghai Disney Resort.

Despite all the off-the-court news, there is a game. Georgia Tech (21-15 in 2016-17) and UCLA (31-5) meet on Friday at 11:30 p.m. in a game televised on ESPN. It’s the first meeting between the two teams since 2006 in a series that UCLA leads 3-1.

With two returning starters unavailable, Georgia Tech will depend heavily on center Ben Lammers, its most experienced player. The senior averaged 14.2 points and 9.2 rebounds was an All-ACC selection last season. As the only proven scorer on the team, Lammers will be called on to do even more.

“Coach is yelling at me to shoot more,” Lammers said. “More than points, it’s trying to be more aggressive.”

Earlier this week Lammers was one of 40 players named to the watch list for the Lute Olson National Player of the Year Award.

With Okogie (16.2 points) and Jackson (12.1 points) out, there is a combined 7.2 points among returners Justin Moore, Sylvester Ogbonda and Abdoulaye Gueye.

“We’ll have to find a way to get things done through committee until those guys get back,” Pastner said before the team left for its trip.

Georgia Tech will need to get contributions from its four freshman recruits. Jose Alvarado is expected to share the duties at point guard with Moore. Long-armed Moses Wright had a double-double in the second exhibition and will likely play a big role. Evan Cole and Curtis Haywood II will also get plenty of minutes.

Graduate transfer Brandon Alston, who was injured in the first exhibition game and missed the second one, has been practicing and is expected to play.

The only starter returning for UCLA is senior Thomas Welsh, who averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds. The other most-experienced player is sophomore Aaron Holiday (12.3 points), who was also named the watch list for the Lute Olson Award. Welsh had 22 points and 14 rebounds in the preseason exhibition win over Cal State Los Angeles.

UCLA brought six freshmen on the trip, but he will be without the trio of suspended players: Cody Riley, Jalen Hill and LiAngelo Ball, the younger brother of NBA No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball. McDonald’s All-American guards Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes are expected to have a big impact for the Bruins.