The Georgia Tech basketball team left Friday for its trip to China for the season opener. The 14-hour flight will take the Yellow Jackets to Shanghai for a game against UCLA on Nov. 10. The traveling party took off with many more questions than they did just a week ago, not only about the first game, but about the season that follows.
In the 10 days since the ACC’s Operation Basketball preseason meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Yellow Jackets were picked to finish ninth in the 15-team league, two dramatic events that have occurred to change the landscape of the season.
First, Josh Okogie, the team’s leading scorer a year ago, suffered a dislocated index finger on his non-shooting left hand in the exhibition against Georgia State. Okogie was fitted with a bright green splint and deemed unable to play for up to four weeks while the hand healed.
The second event could be even more problematic. On Thursday, it was revealed that Okogie and senior Tadric Jackson, the team’s third-leading scorer, would not be making the trip to China. Both had admitted to receiving apparel, meals and transportation – Okogie for less than $750 and Jackson for less than $525 – from an individual unaffiliated with the program.
Georgia Tech self-reported the violation to the NCAA and ruled that neither Okogie nor Jackson could play until the matter was settled by the NCAA. It is uncertain when that ruling would be handed down nor the punishment that would come along with it. But there is no doubt that it has impeded any momentum gained from last season’s unexpected 21-15 season that saw the Yellow Jackets finish second in the National Invitation Tournament.
Coach Josh Pastner was quick to point out that the suspension did not involve any violations of the law and was not linked to the FBI investigation that caused Louisville to fire veteran coach Rick Pitino.
“It’s just an unfortunate situation, very minor and we’re moving forward,” Pastner said. “They didn’t break any law. It wasn’t a suspension due to drugs or alcohol or something with a female. It’s just an unfortunate situation and we’ve moved forward with it.”
The loss of two of his cornerstone players leaves the Yellow Jackets to rely even more heavily on center Ben Lammers, a first-team all-ACC Player and ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and the group of four freshmen who will be forced to play more significant roles. They won’t have any opportunity to ease into the rotation.
“They’ve improved a lot since the first game,” Lammers said about the freshmen. “There’s still a lot of room to grow. They’re learning the system pretty well.”
Perhaps the most growth between the first and second exhibition games was shown by Moses Wright, a 6-foot-9 wing. He had 17 points and 13 rebounds in Thursday’s 78-60 win over Faulkner.
“Moses is one of those guys, if he plays hard like he did (against Faulkner), he’ll be hard to guard. He’s definitely had the most growth.”
Freshman point guard Jose Alvarado showed better court presence against Faulkner and had 13 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals. He only had one turnover. Freshmen Evan Cole and Curtis Haywood II also played better in the second game.
The Yellow Jackets were also without graduate transfer Brandon Alston and forward Sylvester Ogbonda, who were both injured and couldn’t play on Thursday. And big man Abdoulaye Gueye, who was suspended for violating team rules and didn’t play against Georgia State, is just returning from an injury sustained against Clemson last February.
“I’ve said that this year is going to be harder because of our youth,” Pastner said. “To win in this league you’ve got to get old and stay old and right now we’re young. We may be more talented, but we’re inexperienced.
“Guys are going to have to get better. It could be a little rocky to begin the season, but as we move forward, as we did last year, we’ll get better and will continue to get better and we’ll see that throughout the season.”
Georgia Tech opens the home portion of its schedule on Nov. 19 against Bethune-Cookman.