Josh Pastner! You just went 14-22 in your first two years of ACC play, and it’s year three in Atlanta! How do you feel?
Not that this is a perfect encapsulation of a coach by any means – remember, John Calipari missed the Tournament at Kentucky with Nerlens Noel on his team – but Josh Pastner went 13-19 last season with a Top 20 NBA pick on his roster. He lost games to Grambling State and Wofford and needed to fight Bethune-Cookman to the wire to steal a win. Had he not pulled off a couple close victories in ACC play (Syracuse by 4, NCSU by 3), it would’ve been even worse. Tech went just 1-11 in Quadrant 1 games and 4-16 against the top two quadrants overall. Of their four best players a year ago, three either left early or graduated.
Now, it is on Pastner to rebuild a roster that didn’t accomplish much in the first place. His nine-man rotation consists of five freshmen or sophomores. Their best returning player is coming off of a season that ended early with a fractured elbow. Their first game was a solid overperformance – an 88-69 win over Lamar where they were favored by 10 points – but sustaining a 12 of 30 shooting output from three will be tough. Similarly, the amount of games they can give up 33 free throw attempts and turn the ball over 15 times and win will be pretty low. Whether you see this as a more serious test than Louisiana-Lafayette is up to you. If nothing else, they’ve been good defensively for a while, and it’s always good to get in 40 minutes of reps whenever you can.
WHAT THEY BRING
Jose Alvarado, good shooter, better defender
Alvarado is the only top-four player from last year who returns. While he’s not the highest usage guy on the team – a general expectation lies between a 17-22% Usage Rate per night, around 10-13 shots a game – he’s pretty efficient. Alvarado hit 37% of his threes a year ago. While that offense had Okogie, more experience, and (likely) better spacing, it’s worth watching to see if Alvarado takes more of a star turn this season. He had four 20+ point games as a freshman, but he also posted nine single-digit games.
More of his talent, to me, lies on defense. He ranked in the 87th percentile a year ago per Synergy Sports on plays he defended. He was good at terrorizing other perimeter players (forced four steals against Syracuse and three steals in six other games), and opponents shot pretty poorly against him – 34.3%, to be exact. This is a good early test for Jordan Bone.
Headband Brandon Alston
Alston has been an also-ran in his two stops – Lehigh and GT – for the most part. Now, he’ll be asked to step into a bigger role as a senior leader. He looked the part against Lamar – 17 points and 4 of 5 from three in just 19 minutes of play – but it’s plays like the one above where he makes a good decision to push the ball that he’ll need to make more often.
Big Gueye (or Ogbonda) in the post
Abdoulaye Gueye isn’t the most talented big man I’ve ever seen, but he does provide size, along with his counterpart Sylvester Ogbonda. They’re 6’9″ and 6’10”. Gueye is more experienced, but Ogbonda may end up playing more despite barely playing at all last year. Why? Gueye is bizarrely easy to scout on offense. On 76 post-up possessions last year, Gueye turned to his left shoulder on 57 (75%). He went to his right just 25% of the time. This trend is continuing: on four post-up possessions against Lamar, Gueye went to his left on all four.
Ogbonda appears to be more athletic and could provide a decent challenge for Alexander. It’s one game, but Ogbonda did put up 7 points and 9 rebounds on Lamar. Gueye is the better defender (five blocks in game one), though. Depending on the situation, this could be a good opportunity for Tennessee to swap around defenders in the post – a slightly stouter guy like Derrick Walker or even Williams/Schofield would be a good response to Gueye, while Kyle Alexander and, to a lesser extent, John Fulkerson would work well against Ogbonda. Notably, both Gueye and Ogbonda fouled out versus Lamar.
They’re good defensively, but learning
Tech did well in their first game, as I mentioned. It’s not easy to break in three new starters and other new members into the rotation, but the players are trying hard. That said, this was sloppy transition defense:
This was similarly bad from Alston:
This is where communication is key. On quality transition defense, players are shouting, letting others know who they’ve got and where they’ll be. Tennessee was effective at this down the stretch last year, and it was a key reason why they turned into one of the five best collegiate defenses. Tech is alright at transition defense, but Tennessee could exploit this.
Their big men also struggled to defend their own boards, giving up 16 (!) offensive rebounds to a team with no regular taller than 6’8″:
Going forward, plays like these have to be cleaned up if Georgia Tech wants a shot at finishing .500 or better on the year. Tennessee should be able to do a good amount of work on the offensive boards if they desire; in particular, Kyle Alexander should be able to get three of his own in this game, if not more.
HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT
Don’t fix what’s not broke
Tennessee’s been running a ton of motion screens, as you’d expect, but there’s been more action for the second screener this year than usual. If Pons can hit shots like that more consistently, he’s earned his status as seventh man on a very talented team. (Seriously, look at how much Pons moves on this play. He covers nearly all of the area inside the arc.) In fact, the offensive confidence of the team as a whole appears to be higher than it was at any extended point in 2017-18. Imagine Jordan Bone stepping into this shot a year ago:
That’s serious growth.
You’re playing a team that’s in search of second and third leaders who struggled with ball movement in their first game. This is a play that Tennessee could not have run last year, or would have only run for Bowden/Schofield. Now that Tennessee starts the game with four shooters on the floor and often features five, the ability to move the ball and space the floor is something others will have to defend. In shorter terms: defending an offense is a lot harder when you’ve got five guys to worry about instead of two or three.
Defense needs a little tidying up, but it shouldn’t be a big issue here
To exploit Tennessee’s defense as I see it, you need two things: a lineup with 4-5 shooters, multiple big men that can clean up down low, or if you’re Kansas, both. Georgia Tech has neither of these things, but I would like to see cleaner perimeter closeouts and attention-seeking going forward. Schofield closes fast, but if he doesn’t lose track of Cedric Russell, it’s not even a shot attempt:
Likewise, Tennessee fell asleep on a couple of quick layups early against Louisiana-Lafayette. Alston and Alvarado could exploit this if Tennessee isn’t focused, though I can excuse the “don’t commit an early foul” attitude here somewhat.
Again, don’t change what’s working
You have Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield and a whole lot of dudes. Use them.
Jordan Bone versus Jose Alvarado. This is the first real point guard test for Bone. Marcus Stroman turns it over a ton, and Lenoir-Rhyne’s dude is Lenoir-Rhyne’s dude. Alvarado is a legitimately good player who plays tight defense. Bone needs to stay aggressive.
Tennessee’s Big Men versus Gueye/Ogbonda. Tennessee will win this matchup, and it should, but I’m looking for the following: are Tennessee’s big men consistently drawing fouls? Are they following and forcing Gueye to his right, where he’s clearly not as comfortable going? With Ogbonda, are they properly boxing out and forcing him to go over the top for boards? If so, this could be an easier-than-expected blowout, because forcing Tech’s lineup to take more threes than it wants seems positive.
Tennessee’s Perimeter Players versus Defending the Three. I have my doubts that Tech shoots 40% on threes the entire season, but their 12 threes against Lamar was the most they’ve made since January 2, 2011. Clearly, this should be a somewhat better outside shooting team than they’ve had previously. Tennessee was much better against Louisiana-Lafayette (14 of 21 catch-and-shoots guarded; 13 of 27 against Lenoir-Rhyne) in defending the perimeter, and they should do well here, but sustaining the ULL effort long-term is needed to replicate last year’s perimeter defense.
Tennessee 77, Georgia Tech 62.