TCU and Georgia Tech face off in the NIT Championship Thursday night at 7pm on ESPN. Both teams have had great runs to this point, so we caught up with Joey Weaver, Managing Editor of the Georgia Tech SB Nation site From The Rumble Seat. A big thanks to Joey for answering our questions.
You can also read my answers to Joey’s questions on FTRS.
1. Georgia Tech, like TCU, has a first year coach that has exceeded everyone's expectations this season. Why has Josh Pastner been able to find success so quickly?
I think the success has been a little bit of a self-fulfilling type of deal. A major difference between Brian Gregory's teams and Pastner's team is this team's willingness and ability to "play fast" and score in transition, and to create opportunities to do so by playing strong defense. Pastner isn't afraid of the team's weaknesses and will openly admit "we're not good at shooting", and has worked with his staff to find ways to play to the team's strengths and avoid those deficiencies. Now, while focusing on defense and building the offense around a small set of players might not seem like a fun style of basketball to play, the team seems to have bought in more throughout the season as they've seen it working and leading to wins. The same thing goes for the team's rotation -- in 36 games, only 7 players have played in 30+...which isn't very many for a team that hasn't really been plagued by injuries. So, the players on the team have bought in to a scheme that (as of now) isn't meant to be "fun for everyone", and I think the reason for that buy-in has been the success they've seen.
2. How have the fans responded to Pastner being able to come in and coach this squad to the NIT Championship?
A year ago, Brian Gregory went 21-15 (8-10) and took his team to the NIT quarterfinals, and Georgia Tech fans were fully happy to see him go. (It was by far his best season with his best roster, but that team seemed to be the program's ceiling under Gregory and was built on several graduate transfers.)
This year, despite having to replace the team's four best senior starters with players acquired through Gregory's overall lackluster recruiting efforts, Pastner has the team on the verge of an NIT Championship after being legitimately in the discussion for the NCAA Tournament through most of conference play. Let's just say that, at this point, Yellow Jacket fans seem to be scouting out locations for a statue outside of McCamish Pavilion. The fan base has been reinvigorated in a way we haven't seen in the better part of a decade.
3. While the Jackets finished 8-10 in conference play, some of those wins were huge, over North Carolina, Florida State, and Notre Dame. What were the keys in those wins for Georgia Tech?
There were three common threads in those three major upsets that stuck out on Georgia Tech's resume down the stretch.
-- Location: All three of those games were at home for the Yellow Jackets. While home court advantage is helpful for any team, Georgia Tech played on a totally different level at home this season, finishing with a school-record 17 home wins on the year. That thing about reinvigorating the fanbase? Part of that comes from having huge wins at home over those teams, and another later in February over Syracuse. The cyclical nature of this team's buy-in as it saw results is the same as the fan support and home-court advantage, which got more and more intense as the team kept winning big home games.
-- Defense: Georgia Tech's defensive efforts created uncharacteristically poor shooting efforts in each of those upsets, as UNC (33.3%), Florida State (28.2%), and Notre Dame (40.4%) all had very underwhelming nights from the field, and only Notre Dame (41.2%) shot better than 25% from three-point range.
-- Offensive Spark: In each game, one of the Jackets' guards got ultra-hot and carried the team offensively. Josh Okogie combined for 61 points against UNC and Florida State, while Tadric Jackson added 25 points against Notre Dame. They were assisted by secondary supporters too, with Ben Lammers scoring double digits in each and double-digit performances from the likes of Josh Heath and Quinton Stephens in the UNC & FSU games.
4. Josh Okogie has been a beast as a freshman, knocking down over 45% of his shots this season. How has he been able to step right in and perform at a high level?
First off, the consensus seems to be that Okogie was pretty underrated and under-recruited in high school based on how well he's stepped in and competed throughout the ACC schedule, including big games under the brightest of lights (as mentioned above). One of the things that makes Okogie so good is his athleticism, which creates his ability to run the floor on fast-break opportunities and close out well on defense. He leads the team in steals and three-point percentage (min 20 attempts) and just generally is a well-rounded player. He still needs plenty of polish to his game before he's ready to play professionally, but that he's already being talked about in that light and being mentioned as a candidate for the USA U19 National Team are indicative of just how good he's been.
5. Ben Lammers is averaging close to a double-double this season, and he's a force down low. What makes his game so successful?
Like Okogie, I think one of the things that makes Lammers so good is his unusual athleticism for a man of his size. He moves very well, is comfortable in transition defense, and can support in a variety of ways offensively. At 6'10", Lammers is starting to develop a mid-range jumper (watch out for the Nowitzki-esque fadeaway jumper in the post) that could really take his game to the next level. Defensively, his ability to time his jumps and interrupt shots without fouling have been key to making him one of the country's top shot blockers -- he's a major reason why the analytics would tell you that Georgia Tech is one of the country's top defensive teams. The biggest area where Lammers seems to struggle on both ends of the floor is against bigger, stronger centers that play more of a power game underneath. The more that his athleticism is neutralized by power, the more Lammers will struggle.
6. What has been the key to Georgia Tech's run in the NIT?
You've already seen me talk a bunch about the team's defense, which has continued to be a driving force with them in the NIT. I also discussed earlier about the team's success in home games, which really helped (especially in the first round against higher-seed Indiana). The only real differences in the NIT have been the team's success on offense. They've found ways to start games better than they were late in their ACC schedule and into the ACC Tournament. They've started hitting a few more deep shots, especially coming from Quinton Stephens (who has a really nasty habit of being a streaky shooter...we're talking games at a time here). They've also managed to get out to leads and hold on to them, putting pressure on their opponents and combining that with defense to squeeze the life out of them. Ultimately, they're playing their best basketball of the year at the right time, and at a time that we wouldn't have expected with how they faded down the stretch of the regular season.
7. Finally, what's your prediction for tonight's game?
The Yellow Jackets tend to struggle the most when away from home, and when faced with teams that shoot really well, especially from deep -- their lack of offensive firepower tends to make playing from behind a major problem. If Georgia Tech can continue their recent trend of creating poor shooting performances and getting out to an early lead, I really like their chances. If they struggle early though, and TCU comes out shooting well, the game might be over by halftime.
I honestly have no idea what we're going to see, but I'll make a homer pick here. Give me a final score of Georgia Tech 72, TCU 65.