By Andy Demetra | Voice of the Yellow Jackets
Keep missing shots and it can sap your will on defense, no matter how hard you guard.
Keep giving up baskets and it can put more and more pressure on you to score.
That’s the feedback loop Georgia Tech (8-13, 1-10 ACC) finds itself in as it searches for its footing in ACC play, which continues Wednesday with a matchup against the Louisville Cardinals (2-19, 0-11 ACC) at the KFC Yum! Center.
With both teams looking to shake their ACC doldrums, the fight for confidence will be paramount Wednesday. Making shots early. Converting stops into scores. Getting to the free throw line, and not leaving points on the line when they get there.
Both teams know the opportunity that stands across from them. Which team can seize onto that confidence faster? That may set the tone in a game where both teams will be hungry for a win.
Enjoy the top notes from my chart as Georgia Tech searches for its first win at the KFC Yum! Center (7 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network):
Tech discovered Tristan Maxwell after scouting his high school teammate Jae’Lyn Withers at North Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte. (photo by Danny Karnik)
They don’t have many returners from the team that beat Georgia Tech in the opening round of the 2022 ACC Tournament, but one of Louisville’s holdovers does the lion’s share of the work.
Guard El Ellis (17.3 ppg, 4.7 apg) leads the ACC in Usage Rate, with 150 more field goal attempts than his next closest teammate. He’s a slippery, gliding guard who is always looking to attack the crevices of a defense, given plenty of leeway from first-year head coach Kenny Payne. The Cardinals also have a number of hard-to-move targets in 6-8 Jae’Lyn Withers (8.9 ppg) and 6-8 Sydney Curry (5.5 ppg). Six-foot-9 freshman Emmanuel Okorafor, who joined the team two weeks ago from NBA Academy Africa, made his debut on Saturday versus Notre Dame. The Lagos, Nigeria, native scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds in mop-up minutes, though Louisville may try to tap into that energy again. Beware their three-point shooting too – the Cardinals have made 41.5 percent of their attempts over the last two games, with 6-5 Mike James (15-for-last-30 3pt.) emerging as a capable complement to Ellis.
That said, Louisville has had major issues holding onto the ball: its 23.9 percent turnover rate ranks 359th in the nation. With Georgia Tech struggling to manufacture halfcourt offense, can they convert Louisville turnovers into fast breaks or early offense? They’ll also have to have good point-of-attack defense and win the 50-50 balls that eluded them against Duke. Louisville has good size, with jumbo wings reminiscent of Syracuse, and statistically, the Cardinals offensive rebound well.
Coaches are conditioned to keep their antenna up on the recruiting trail. They may not land the player they came to see, but they can always get a tip that leads them to their next recruit.
Case in point: Georgia Tech assistant Julian Swartz visited North Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, N.C., to scout Jae’Lyn Withers as a junior. The 6-8 Withers ultimately signed with Louisville, where he’s given the Cardinals a stretchy presence from deep (40.3% 3pt.). But during the visit, one of North Mecklenburg’s assistants tipped off Swartz about another player on his team, a sophomore who had just started to flash major-college potential.
That player? Withers’ teammate, Tristan Maxwell.
Someone who has played well away from McCamish? Naturally, the Yellow Jackets’ most well-traveled player, sixth-year senior Ja’von Franklin. His two highest-scoring games of ACC play have come on the road, and he’s shooting 66.7 percent in ACC road games (14-of-21). His bounciness could be an antidote to Louisville’s front line.
Freds Pauls Bagatskis made his ACC debut Saturday against Duke. (photo by Danny Karnik)
Josh Pastner and Kenny Payne both served as assistants to John Calipari – Pastner at Memphis, Payne at Kentucky – and not surprisingly, both absorbed many of their former boss’ defensive principles.
For the longest time, that was an aversion to playing zone. But even Louisville has started to play more zone defense lately, which could challenge a Tech team that’s only made 9-of-45 three-pointers over its last two games:
Last 2 games
Georgia Tech – 9 of 45 (20.0%)
Louisville – 17 of 41 (41.5%)
That doesn’t mean the Jackets have to settle. Can they play cagey, connected basketball, and cut with force to create opportunities on the back side of plays? Can they avoid the temptation of pull-up twos and make a more concerted effort to get to the foul line? Miles Kelly, Deebo Coleman, Deivon Smith and Kyle Sturdivant haven’t attempted a free throw in the last three games, and despite its record, Louisville has averaged 16 free throw attempts over its last six games. Tech may have to keep the free throw margin within reason Wednesday. Remember that Kelly poured in a career-high 19 points against Louisville in last year’s ACC Tournament.
Six-foot-8 freshman Freds Pauls Bagatskis made his ACC debut against Duke, playing two minutes down the stretch. The outcome of the game was no longer in doubt, but it was a welcome reward for a player who has continued to flash his shooting touch on the Georgia Tech scout team.
Tech fans may see more of that soon. And if “Freddy Baskets” makes it to a postgame press conference, they’ll also hear from him soon – at which point they’ll learn that the Riga, Latvia, native not only speaks impeccable English, he does it without the slightest trace of an accent. Bagatskis sounds more like someone raised in a flyover state than a native of eastern Europe.
I had to ask. How did that happen?
Bagatskis said he learned English – and acquired his completely neutral accent – from watching Disney Channel shows growing up.
Now that we’re prepared, we hope you are as well. Join us for pregame coverage starting at 6:30 p.m. ET on the Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports. See you in Louisville.
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ABOUT GEORGIA TECH MEN’S BASKETBALL
Georgia Tech’s men’s basketball team has completed six seasons under head coach Josh Pastner, winning the Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 2021 and making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years. Tech has been a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference since 1979, won four ACC Championships (1985, 1990, 1993, 2021), played in the NCAA Tournament 17 times and played in two Final Fours (1990, 2004). Connect with Georgia Tech Men’s Basketball on social media by liking their Facebook Page, or following on Twitter (@GTMBB) and Instagram. For more information on Tech basketball, visit Ramblinwreck.com.