Being an NC State fan can’t be easy, especially this past week. The Wolfpack in recent years have had plenty of talent, a good coach in Mark Gottfried leading a good staff, yet have taken fans on a roller coaster ride that includes two straight losses to the two teams picked at the bottom of the ACC in the preseason poll. But after Georgia Tech went into Raleigh and beat them 86-76, we need to take a minute to recognize the job Josh Pastner is doing in Atlanta, as well as the year one of his players is having.
If being an NC State fan is not for the faint of heart, being a Georgia Tech fan has been a lot harder for more than a decade. It must feel like a lifetime ago that the Yellow Jackets were in the national championship game.
Before long, that season was a distant memory for Tech fans. The remainder of Paul Hewitt’s tenure was a drag, one with a lot of seasons where the Yellow Jackets were consistently just a little short all too often. Brian Gregory brought them back eventually, but only managed an NIT run with a senior-laden squad. Only four times in the past 20 years have they won at least 20 games, a number that is easier to reach than it was at that time, and last season’s NIT bid was the first postseason appearance since 2010, when they were in the NCAA Tournament. They also haven’t finished at least .500 in ACC play since the 2006-07 season.
Enter Pastner, and a roster that had “major rebuild” written all over it at first.
When Pastner took the job, he minced no words about the need for patience from the fans. He knew this wasn’t going to happen in a year, having surely noticed that this year’s team would have very little returning from last season’s NIT team – five seniors accounted for over 80 percent of all possible starts last season, and they were one of the ten most experienced teams in the country by one measure – and that there wasn’t much for recruiting, especially to gain anyone late. But after Sunday, Georgia Tech is 3-2 in the ACC and in the top half of the standings.
As is often the case in a situation like this, the first group of freshmen Pastner has are an unheralded bunch. There are no McDonald’s All-Americans, no players who were snubbed from that team, or otherwise labeled can’t-miss prospects. But right now, he has a pretty good one in another Josh, guard Josh Okogie.
On Sunday night, the Yellow Jackets lined up opposite Dennis Smith Jr., one of a number of very talented freshmen in the ACC. Although he missed last year with a torn ACL, which led to his decision to graduate high school early and enroll at NC State for the second semester, he has a reputation that precedes him. Thus far, Smith Jr. has largely played up to it, even posting a triple-double in one game, and he had 31 points on 10-21 shooting to go with eight rebounds and six assists.
Here, though, Okogie looked every bit the highly-touted freshman, scoring 27 points on 10-18 shooting, including making all three of his shots from long range, to lead Georgia Tech. A local boy from Snellville (although he was born in Lagos, Nigeria), he is averaging just under 15 points per game on the season and shooting over 35 percent from long range. He has been named ACC Rookie of the Week twice and will have a shot at a third honor this week. (Full disclosure: I am a voter for that honor, as well as ACC Player of the Week.)
NC State allowed Georgia Tech to shoot over 49 percent from the field, and that was a big reason the Yellow Jackets came into Raleigh and left victorious.
Georgia Tech is 3-2 in the ACC for the first time in eight years. They have a win over North Carolina as well. This isn’t to say that the Yellow Jackets are on a fast track to the NCAA Tournament this season, as they have a great deal of work to do to get there. But it tells you that they are already making strides in Pastner’s first season, and that should give the fan base a lot of reason for optimism as he rebuilds the program.
Indiana took care of Rutgers 76-57 at Assembly Hall, but what will probably be remembered most about this was the final seconds. Indiana guard Devonte Green had the ball in the open floor and threw an alley opp to Freddie McSwain, and that enraged head coach Tom Crean. Crean marched out on the floor livid with Green for doing that, as the game was well in hand and Crean wanted him to pull the ball out to run down the clock.
Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Ohio State got its first Big Ten win by knocking off Michigan State 72-67 in Columbus, and Northwestern routed Iowa 89-54.
A big surprise in the Missouri Valley is that Northern Iowa got their first conference win on Sunday, a 79-60 win over visiting Drake. The Panthers, a traditional contender, started off conference play with five straight losses.
The McDonald’s All-American Game selections were announced late Sunday evening, with the game scheduled for March 29 at the United Center in Chicago. Nine players selected for the game have not committed, while four are headed to Kentucky and both Duke and UCLA have two signees playing in the game. Six of the 15 who have committed or signed are headed to Pac-12 schools.
At long last, college basketball has Monday all to itself, and because it’s a holiday, the slate is not as light as usual on Mondays.
- The Big East has a full slate beginning with Marquette at Butler (noon), then a dandy with Creighton at Xavier (2 p.m.), DePaul at St. John’s (4:30 p.m.), Seton Hall at Villanova (6:30 p.m.) and Providence at Georgetown (9 p.m.)
- There’s a full slate of America East action, highlighted by Vermont at New Hampshire (1 p.m.) and Stony Brook at Umass-Lowell (2 p.m.)
- An ACC matchup to watch is Syracuse at North Carolina (7 p.m.)
- The MAAC has a first place showdown with Monmouth visiting Canisius (7 p.m.), a game that also features the two highest scoring teams in the conference.
- There’s also an early showdown in the Horizon League as Green Bay visits Valparaiso at 8 p.m.
- The late game of note is Iowa State hosting Kansas at 9 p.m.
- Also, several big high school matchups are on tap in Springfield at the Hoophall Classic, televised on ESPNU.