THE FLATS - It’s still too early to call for a referendum, unless your name is Josh Pastner and you treat every game like election day, but when Georgia Tech and Northwestern go at it tonight in McCamish Pavilion, some basketball judgements may be made.
After opening the season ranked No. 20, the Wildcats (4-2) ride perhaps the best all-senior backcourt the Yellow Jackets (3-1) will see, and Tech’s starting backcourt is composed of freshmen.
While Tech’s backcourt is green, Jose Alvarado and Curtis Haywood II rank as pleasant surprises. Senior Tadric Jackson is back in the mix, too, after a three-game NCAA suspension, and sophomore point guard Justin Moore returns after a two-game suspension.
The Jackets will need all guards on deck in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge against Northwestern’s Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh. Both were preseason All-Big Ten, and they’re averaging a combined 33.1 points per game.
At 6-feet-3, McIntosh is the third leading active Division I player with 586 career assists. The 6-5 Lindsey is scoring 17.8 points.
“They’ve got a great point guard, they run good offense. They were a top 20 preseason team. They’re veteran. They’re good,” Tech’s head coach suggested. “We’re going to have to be near perfect if we’re going to have a chance at success.”
That’s stock Pastner, yet he’s onto something.
Tech’s best guard – sophomore Jose Okogie – will be out another month. So, the timing is superb when looking for interesting, if incomplete, answers or miserable if you’re looking for a bottom line.
Okogie broke a finger on his left hand in a preseason exhibition against Georgia State, and it’s not healed, nor apparently will be soon.
“It could be the start of conference season [Dec. 30 at Notre Dame],” Pastner explained by way of an Okogie return timetable. “I think more probable will be the start of league play. The bone went through the skin. No issues with the bone. Just the infection ... he’s got to let the infection heal.”
The Jackets’ new guards are getting well fast.
Alvarado led Tech with 19 points and seven rebounds against North Texas and tied Haywood for the team lead with four assists in his most complete game.
The 6-foot point guard plays with verve, and he’s the Jackets’ second-leading scorer (14.3 points), rebounder (5.8) and leads Tech in assists (4.5) while ranking second in steals (eight).
Still fresh out of New York City, Alvarado does everything at full speed, like when he scored 12 points in the first half against North Texas.
“Just playing my game, playing Georgia Tech basketball, going with the flow, trying to make everybody’s energy go up. Shots were falling,” he said. “If you ask me, I’m a pass-first point guard, but if the shots are falling, open shots ... [teammates] hit me and I’m making them.”
Much like last season, the Jackets are making their bones on defense.
The 49 points surrendered to North Texas were the fewest in Pastner’s 41 games since he made The Flats his home, and the Green Mean entered the contest averaging 85.6.
Again, Tech ranks highly nationally in multiple defensive metrics, but their best chance to improve upon last season’s 21-16 mark will be to improve offensively.
It’s hard to predict the likelihood of that with Okogie out and the Jackets relying so heavily on newcomers. For all intents and purposes, Pastner’s deployed eight players and four are scholarship freshmen. A fifth, starting wing/guard Brandon Alston, is a graduate transfer from Lehigh and new to the program.
Plus, Okogie and his 16.1-point scoring average will be absent for a while.
Good thing Haywood’s finding his groove.
He came off the bench in the opener against UCLA, and since then the 6-5 guard from Oklahoma City has started. He scored 11 points last Wednesday in a 78-68 win over Texas-Rio Grande Valley, and then blew up in the second half against the Mean Green.
He hit four 3-point shots after halftime on the way to scoring 15 points – all on 5-of-7 3-point shooting – and added five rebounds, four assists, three steals.
Haywood and Alston became primary ballhandlers for the past two games while sophomore point guard Justin Moore served a two-game NCAA suspension, and they both acquitted themselves nicely and not just with their handles.
Pastner’s been looking for everybody to hit 3-point shots to create some room inside for senior center Ben Lammers, who played against North Texas with a seriously sprained ankle.
The Jackets hit 12-of-30 from long distance in the last two games after making just 5-of-26 in the first two.
“The 3-point shot gives you energy, gives you momentum, and, obviously it creates space for you offensively as well,” Pastner said. “You’re trying to create gaps offensively. You want to have space.
“You want to be able to be in an attack mentality and in order to be able to do that you’ve got to be able to shoot the ball, which opens things up for everybody, not only for Ben but for other drive opportunities.”
Haywood’s long balls helped against North Texas, and so did Alston’s two treys in the win over Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
“In practice, I’ve been getting a lot of shots in with my coaches and managers, and in the game it just all came to me,” Haywood said. “My teammates found me, and they’ve been waiting on me to shoot like this.”