March 21, 2017
By Andy Demetra | Georgia Tech Radio
– Mississippi first. Mecca next?
After a pair of stirring home wins, the Yellow Jackets find themselves on the brink of their first NIT semifinal appearance at New York’s Madison Square Garden since 1971. To get there, they’ll need to snap an 8-game road losing streak in Oxford, where they face the Ole Miss Rebels (22-13, 10-8 SEC) in the NIT quarterfinals.
The Yellow Jackets (19-15) have defied odds and expectations all season long. They’ll look to do so one last time in Mississippi – with a trip to NYC waiting on the other end. Here are my top five notes from my chart in preparation for Tuesday’s winner-take-New York matchup at The Pavilion (9 p.m. EST, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network):
Quinton Stephens had a storybook sendoff in his final home game, scoring a career-high 23 points in the Yellow Jackets’ 71-57 win over Belmont. The Atlanta, Ga., native has played with the urgency expected of a senior making his last postseason run: since the ACC Tournament, Stephens has averaged 18.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 41.7 percent shooting from three-point range.
His impact may be needed again versus Ole Miss. According to Pastner, Georgia Tech’s three best road performances were against VCU, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech (a one-point loss, though the Jackets nearly upset an eventual NCAA Tournament team). There were several connective threads in those games. Tech had strong starts. It kept its turnover rate down. And crucially, Stephens came through in every one:
Quinton Stephens @ VCU: 12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists @ NCSU: 22 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists @ VT: 18 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists FG% (3g): 50% FG (17-34), 47.4% 3pt. (9-19)
Stephens has only shot 20 percent from three-point range over his last four road games (4 of 20). Could he be a barometer for Tech tonight? Pastner believes so – and he has full belief in his senior.
Georgia Tech’s unorthodox defensive stylings may finally meet its match Tuesday. Like the Yellow Jackets, Ole Miss mixes defenses often, toggling between man, zone, half-court, full-court, and trapping. The Rebels aren’t nearly as stout overall, ranking 90th nationally in defensive efficiency (14th highest among Tech’s opponents this year).
Key for the Yellow Jackets: value the ball and continue to attack Ole Miss’ changing looks. The Yellow Jackets have had their three lowest turnover rates of the season in the last three games – against Belmont, Stephens and Josh Okogie combined for 9 assists without a turnover. Against a rangy, athletic team like the Rebels, passivity can be poisonous. In addition to moving the ball assertively to the second and third side in halfcourt, Tech can also help itself by pushing the ball: according to Synergy Sports, Ole Miss charts poorly in transition defense.
Tuesday’s game puts Pastner roughly 90 miles from Memphis, where he coached for seven seasons before landing at Tech. He’s not the only one on his staff with connections to the area, though. Video coordinator Tyler Benson spent a season as a graduate manager at Ole Miss. Assistant coach Tavaras Hardy has relatives who live in Mississippi.
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy has prospered from the play of Sebastian Saiz, a stretchy, 6-9 forward who ranks fifth nationally in rebounds per game (15.0 ppg, 11.3 rpg). A first-team All-SEC selection, Saiz enters tonight needing seven rebounds for 1,000 for his career. He’s a terrific “roll man” on pick-and-rolls, possesses a feathery left-shoulder hook shot, and is outstanding on the offensive glass. Saiz’s athleticism versus Ben Lammers’ shot blocking savvy should make for great viewing tonight.
On the perimeter, Kennedy’s teams have almost always featured an unbridled, volume three-point shooter. Chris Warren begat Marshall Henderson; Marshall Henderson begat Stefan Moody. This year is no exception: junior Deandre Burnett (16.8 ppg, 38.9 pct. 3pt.), a transfer from Miami (Fla.) has drilled 15 of his last 24 from three. Sophomore Terence Davis (14.9 ppg), a highly recruited wide receiver out of high school, lit up Syracuse for 30 points on 6-of-7 three-point shooting. And you may have heard of grad transfer Cullen Neal (9.3 ppg, 41.2% 3pt.), the son of former Georgia Tech standout Craig Neal. Neal actually hosted Andy Kennedy, a former Mississippi Mr. Basketball, on his recruiting visit at Tech.
The Yellow Jackets have tamed a pair of high-volume three-point teams during their NIT run – neither Indiana nor Belmont could find where the open looks were. Can the Jackets force the Rebels to take contested, disjointed shots, then gang-rebound against an Ole Miss squad that hammers the boards hard (fifth-highest OR percentage among Tech’s opponents)? And more importantly, can the thin-bench Yellow Jackets stay out of foul trouble? Unlike Belmont and Indiana, Ole Miss gets to the line with abandon. The Rebels lead the nation in made free throws.
This might be one of the rare cases where Deandre Burnett’s bloodlines don’t bode well for him. Ole Miss’ top scorer, a native of Miami Gardens, Fla., is the older brother of former Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. Cook, of course, was held to 82 rushing yards in the famous “Miracle on Techwood Drive” game in 2015.
Now that we’re prepared, we hope you are as well. Our pregame coverage starts at 8:30 p.m. EST on the Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network. See you in Oxford – and perhaps beyond.