By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
- By the time Georgia Tech plays its home opener against Bethune-Cookman on Sunday, the Yellow Jackets figure to be fully rested and back on normal schedules yet they may not stop talking any time soon about their trip to China.
It took a couple days after Tech returned Sunday evening from a season-opening 63-60 loss to No. 21 UCLA to get sleep patterns right again, but that was a small price to pay for an eight-day trip that players believe benefitted them educationally while growing their team dynamic as well.
“It’s kind of like why people study abroad. Experiencing a whole new culture is something that I think everyone, if they have the capability, should do just because it gives more of a world perspective,” said senior center Ben Lammers.
“To be honest, we got about the same amount of practice time. We had one day off, but otherwise it was practice every day. We definitely improved, and it also helped bring the team together because when you have a trip like this people hang out a lot more. It definitely helps in that aspect.”
Head coach Josh Pastner’s team and the Institute benefitted, as ESPN commentator, UCLA graduate and Hall of Famer Bill Walton said on the television broadcast Friday night that the Tech team, “has been perfect” in leading up to Friday evening’s Pac-12 China game.
Walton complimented the Jackets for their participation in multiple activities, their behavior in general, and he added that Tech president Bud Peterson – who made the trip – was “most impressive and extremely inspirational.”
Lammers played inspired basketball against the Bruins, racking up game highs of 24 points and 10 rebounds with two steals, a blocked shot and an assist while newcomers Jose Alvarado and Brandon Alston added 12 and 10 points, respectively.
Alston, a graduate transfer from Lehigh, said the Jackets’ journey helped him grow as a person while growing closer to his teammates.
“It was definitely educational. Being so far away from China, you don’t even know what to really expect about stuff they’re doing over there, so education-wise it kind of opens your eyes and lets you know that there’s so much more to the world than the USA as a whole,” he said.
“I think it puts us ahead. Having that bonding experience, taking eight days where we’re traveling all the time, in a new country, exploring a new world together ... with me being new to the team, I feel at home now a lot more than I did before we took off.”
Plenty of new faces were in action for the Jackets, and that will continue.
Jackson will miss two more games as part of his three-game NCAA suspension, and Okogie will miss five more as part of a six-game suspension.
Pastner deployed eight players against UCLA, and Lammers, junior Abdoulaye Gueye and sophomore Justin Moore were the only Tech veterans who saw action. Third-year sophomore Sylvester Ogbonda was sidelined by a knee injury.
Alston, Alvarado and Wright started in Shanghai’s Baoshan Arena, where Tech began facing a fairly steep learning curve.
“For us, it’s got to be about us in the sense that we’ve got to find a way to help Ben, and until Tadric and Josh are back, we’ve got to find a way to score,” Pastner said. “I don’t want to say it’s a blessing because I’d rather have those guys, but it’s a blessing in the sense that I’m forced to play guys I might not have played as many minutes, so hopefully down the road they help us win an ACC game.
“These freshmen are going to have to produce. By [Okogie and Jackson] not being here, it expedites their process. You don’t have time to kind of stroll them along.”
Pastner said Tech’s defense is well ahead of the offense, as was the case early last season, when the Jackets went 21-16 and reached the championship game of the NIT after upsets of North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame during the regular season.
Lammers believes Tech is capable of playing an even better brand of basketball this season, and the temporary absence of Okogie and Jackson may help the process as soon as Sunday at 2 p.m. in McCamish Pavilion.
“I think it will cause some guys to grow into their roles faster because you can’t just rely on one, two or three guys,” he said. “It’s a whole team, and I think it will help us down the road.
“I think we earned the fans’ trust through our play last year, and we showed that we’re a fun team to watch. I think people have been looking forward to this season a lot more than the past and I think we’re going to have a lot bigger crowd than we did in the past.”
Alston is new to Tech’s process, yet he also has a good feeling about the Jackets.
“We’ve kind of had this week to bounce back, get right with our sleep and everything and then we’re back at it for I think six games in 14 days,” he said. “I think we’re going to do pretty well in those games and get on a win streak.”