The Hoop Hounds (3-0, 0-0 SEC) will take to the court again this evening in their biggest test of the 2019-20 season. The ‘Dawgs host Georgia Tech (2-0, 1-0 ACC) in Stegeman Coliseum with tip-off set for 7:00 Athens time. SEC Network will carry the game.
The Jackets are also undefeated on the young season, with an overtime win over NC State and a blowout victory over Elon. To help us get to know the Gnats from NATS, I called on Robert Pensa of SB Nation’s home for all things Tech, From the Rumble Seat, to answer a few questions ahead of tonight’s contest.
1) Tech comes into this one 2-0 off a gutsy overtime win over N.C. State and a good enough shooting performance to club Elon. How are you feeling about the Jackets just based off those two performances?
Robert: I think the term I would use is cautiously optimistic. The Jackets looked dreadful to start the game against NC State and fell behind by over 15 points early. Note that this was an NC State team missing both D.J. Funderburk and Markell Johnson. But the team held it together, rallied, and played some incredible defense. In game 2 against Elon, the Jackets also didn’t look great, but ultimately got the job done and did it without point guard Jose Alvarado. Tech scored just 25 points in the first half, but stellar defense held Elon to just 13 points. In the second half, Tech pulled away and won by 20+.
I think what has me cautiously optimistic more than the results is what I’ve seen from individual players. Michael Devoe, a sophomore who came to Tech as a four star recruit last season, looks to be much more confident than a season ago and dropped 22 points in each of the first two games. Sophomore Khalid Moore looks to have taken a huge step forward from his freshman season. ACC all-defensive center James Banks looks even more improved from his impressive junior season last year.
All this said, this is a program which hasn’t made the tournament in a decade, so I’m going to need to see more before I’m fully on board.
2) Who has been the surprise player of 2019-2020 so far for the Engineers?
Robert: I would have to go with Khalid Moore. As a freshman last season, Moore averaged just 16 minutes per game. Through two games this year, he has started both games and is averaging almost 34 minutes per game. As I mentioned in my article about five takeaways from the first two games, he looks like Tech’s best on ball defender and he’s averaging nearly double digit scoring as well.
3) Who absolutely has to have a great night for Georgia Tech to beat Georgia for the first time in five tries (sorry, couldn’t resist)?
Robert: I don’t think there’s really an answer to this question and that’s one of the things I love most about this Yellow Jacket team. Of course, there are certain players who are more important than others, but this team has a lot of different options and a lot of depth. They don’t necessarily need to rely on one certain player in order to win the game. All that said, I’d say James Banks is probably the most important player and I say that because he has struggled to stay out of foul trouble at times throughout his career. It is so important that he is able to stay on the floor because he makes the largest defensive impression for the Jackets and center is also where Tech is most thin.
4) Going forward, what are the expectations for Tech basketball this season? Is there an overhang from the ongoing NCAA sanctions/appeal process?
Robert: On Friday, the Jackets submitted their appeal of the NCAA sanctions. I think there is hope within the program that the sanctions may actually get reduced, however even if they don’t, Tech may still have postseason eligibility this season depending on the outcome of the appeal or how long it drags on. With that said, this team has their eye on the NCAA tournament. This is definitely the most talented team Pastner has had and they have set up a strong non-conference schedule with the hopes of putting together a tournament-worthy resume. Right now, based on all that, I don’t think there is much overhang from the ongoing NCAA sanctions and if anything, it may have the team even more motivated out of anger.
5) If the Jackets are down one with five seconds on the clock, who’s getting the shot to win it?
Robert: Similar to your third question, I’m not sure this one has one specific answer. Mike Devoe is the Jacket’s leading scorer and purest shooter and it would not surprise me at all to see him have the final shot. Meanwhile, Jose Alvarado is the leader of this team and led the team in scoring a season ago. This is a guy whose high school coaches said would “rather win than breathe” and I would definitely trust him in a clutch situation as well. If Tech only needs two points, I think Josh Pastner may try to get the ball to James Banks down low.
6) Because we must: what’s your score prediction?
Robert: This early in the season, it’s always tough to make a call like this. I wish this game was at home, but Tech already showed their ability to win on the road against NC State. In my opinion, the biggest key for the Jackets will be avoiding a slow start, which they did against both NC State and Elon. If they can get ahead early, I think the defense keeps UGA out of the game. If they have to come from behind, it will definitely be tougher. For me, this game is basically a coin flip, so I’ll go with the Jackets in a 72-70 win.
Thanks to Robert for his thoughtful answers. It’s interesting that at this juncture a lot of the same concerns that Bulldog fans have about their young squad apply equally to the Engineers. Tonight will go along way in shaping the narrative surrounding both teams as they head into the meat of their non-conference schedules. Until later...