While the 2016-2017 basketball season didn’t end the way Georgia Tech fans would have hoped, the ride was one of the most memorable and unexpected in recent memory. Over the next couple of weeks we’ll take a look back at the season that was and ahead to the future of Georgia Tech Basketball. Joey tipped us off on Friday with his column on Year 1 of the Josh Pastner era. Today, we’ll recap the many ups and downs of the 2016-17 season. Buckle up, it was one helluva ride.
An Offseason of Change
Georgia Tech ended the 2015-16 basketball season in the NIT quarterfinals against San Diego State. The loss ended the Yellow Jackets’ best season since 2009-10 but it was not enough to save the job of Head Coach Brian Gregory, who was fired on the afternoon of March 25th. This kicked off an extensive coaching search that saw now-former AD Mike Bobinski go through several rumored candidates before settling on Memphis Coach Josh Pastner.
Once on campus, Pastner’s first job was to fill out his staff. Known as a good recruiter but not the best X’s and O’s coach, Pastner’s assistant coaches were widely praised for shoring up his weaknesses. His first hire was former Yellow Jacket Darryl LaBarrie, a mainstay in the Atlanta coaching scene. Next up, Pastner added some head coaching experience to the bench with former Portland head man Eric Reveno. Finally, former Georgetown assistant and ace recruiter Tavares Hardy filled out the three-man staff.
With the coaching staff assembled it was time to hit the recruiting trail to fill out the roster. Gone were seniors Marcus Georges-Hunt, Adam Smith, Charles Mitchell, Nick Jacobs, and James White. Also gone was backup PG Travis Jorgenson, who left the team. Romello White, one of Brian Gregory’s incoming recruits, asked out of his letter of intent and ended up signing with Arizona State. (White ended up not meeting NCAA academic standards to enroll in Tempe, so even if he had stuck with the Jackets he would not have been available this season.)
Pastner’s first recruit came to the team in early June in the form of 3-star San Diego PG Justin Moore. Moore rounded out a three man freshman class that included Gregory holdovers Josh Okogie and Christian Matthews. To fill out the rest of the roster, Pastner went up to Michigan to pull in a couple of graduate transfers. First up was former Eastern Michigan reserve Jodan Price. The next day, former Western Michigan sharpshooter Kellen McCormick signed on for a graduate season.
With the roster filled out it was time to prepare for the season. Just 16 days before the start of the season, the Jackets got some bad news when their most experienced point guard, Josh Heath, was suspended for the first four games of the season for a violation of team rules. Six days before tip off, Tech needed overtime to defeat Division II Shorter University. With the season around the corner, optimism was in short supply.
Off to a Decent Start
The Josh Pastner era tipped off on November 11th with a game against Tennessee Tech. Between Heath’s suspension and Tadric Jackson’s injured hamstring, the Yellow Jackets were short handed, but still put up a good showing, defeating the Eagles 70-55. In his first collegiate action, Josh Okogie scored 18 points in just 21 minutes, an early sign of the season to come.
Jackson got his first game action 3 days later in another 15 point victory, this time 77-62 over Southern. The junior guard led all scorers with 20 points. Ben Lammers finished one block short of a triple-double with 13 points, 15 rebounds, and 9 blocks. As a team, the Yellow Jackets blocked a school record 16 shots.
Unfortunately, the winning ways did not continue as Tech fell 67-61 to Ohio in the third game of the season. For the first time, Okogie struggled, scoring only 5 points and the Bobcats shot 45% beyond the arc. Lammers led Tech with 22 points and 11 rebounds.
Tech closed out their opening home stand with a pair of wins over Sam Houston State and Tulane. In the first, the Jackets cruised and 5 players scored in double figures, led by Lammers’s 19. In the second, Josh Okogie set the freshman scoring record with a magnificent 38 point performance. After 5 games the Jackets were 4-1 with three straight road games on the horizon.
Tech’s first trip on the road featured two games against power conference opponents and a third game against a perennial NCAA Tournament team. The trip did not get off to a good start.
As part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Yellow Jackets paid a visit to State College for a game against Penn State. While Tech was able to keep it close throughout, they couldn’t pull off the road win, falling 67-60. Quinton Stephens led the Jackets with 13 points and 11 rebounds, his third consecutive double-double. Tech followed up that loss with another, getting routed on Rocky Top. Tennessee seized an early lead and never let up, earning a dominant 81-58 win. Stephens scored 15 points, leading the Jackets again.
The road trip was not a total loss, however. In an absolutely thrilling game, Tech defeated VCU in overtime 76-73. The Jackets jumped out to a first half lead, bolstered by a 3⁄4 court shot by Corey Heyward as the first half buzzer sounded. Though the Rams fought back and forced overtime, Tech’s defense held true and Pastner was able to capture his first road win with Georgia Tech. Tadric Jackson had a great game off the bench, leading the team with 24 points, 19 of which came after halftime.
With final exams in the review mirror, the Jackets had four more games before ACC play started. First up was Alcorn State. The Jackets dispatched the Braves with little problem, winning 74-50. Tadric Jackson and Josh Okogie each scored 14 points to pace the team.
That brought the team to Clean, Old Fashioned Hate: Basketball Edition. Unfortunately the basketball team was not able to follow the example set forth by their football brethren. The Jackets struggled immensely on offense, shooting 10% from three and scoring a season-low 43 points in the loss to their arch-rivals. Ben Lammers was the only Yellow Jacket in double figures, finishing with 10 points on 4-10 shooting.
The last game before the holiday season was against the Wofford Terriers. They hung around longer than Tech would have liked, but the Jackets were able to pull out a 76-72 win behind a big first half from Jackson and a big second half from Lammers. Freshman PG Justin Moore contributed a season-high 12 points.
The final game before ACC play was supposed to be an easy one against NC A&T, arguably the worst team in Division I. Things didn’t quite go to plan. The Aggies led for most of the game and may have won if not for the heroics of grad transfer Kellen McCormick. Despite scoring just 5 points in Tech’s first 11 games, McCormick came off the bench to drain four second-half three pointers, leading Tech to the 59-52 win.
The Opening Gauntlet
Tech entered ACC play with an 8-4 record but coming off of two games that were much closer than Yellow Jacket fans would have liked. With three AP Top Ten opponents coming up on the schedule there didn’t seem to be much to look forward to, but a funny thing happened while most of Yellow Jacket nation was watching the TaxSlayer Bowl.
In front of a sparse crowd, Georgia Tech opened up ACC play with a twelve point victory over #9 North Carolina (who plays tonight in the National Championship game). The Yellow Jacket defense was excellent, locking down the Tar Heels to the tune of 33% from the field and 19% from deep. Josh Okogie stepped up big time in his first taste of ACC action, leading all scorers with 26 points and getting to the free throw line 13 times.
Riding high off the upset, Tech came crashing down in the next two games. First up was a an absolute demolition at the hands of #8 Duke. The Blue Devils shot 52% from behind the arc and scored 61 points in the first half on their way to a 110-57 drubbing. The opening gauntlet wrapped up with a home date against #9 Louisville. The Cardinals jumped out of the gate, racing to a big early lead. The Jackets rallied back, cutting the lead to 3 in the second half before Louisville put the game away, winning 65-50. Ben Lammers had a monster day in the loss with 24 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks.
Tech was 1-2 in ACC play but fans were starting to ask, was the UNC game a fluke?
Not a Fluke
The answer came pretty quickly. Fresh off a football National Championship, the Clemson Tigers came to Atlanta looking to keep the good times rolling, but the Jackets had other ideas. Led by a big nights from Ben Lammers and Josh Heath, the Jackets claimed a second ACC win, 75-63. Lammers racked up another double-double with 23 and 10, while Heath was great distributing the ball and finished with 8 assists and just 2 turnovers.
In case anyone needed more proof that the Jackets were for real, they picked up a third ACC win, this one coming on the road at NC State. Josh Okogie scored 27 points and went toe-to-toe with future NBA lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr as Tech brought home a 86-76 victory. Through 5 games, the Jackets sat at 3-2 in the ACC, already exceeding all preseason projections.
Back to Earth
The good times couldn’t last forever and the Yellow Jackets stumbled on their Virginia road trip. Against the other Tech, the Jackets lost a heartbreaker 62-61. Hokie guard Seth Allen hit the go ahead lay-up with just a few seconds remaining and Quinton Stephens’s buzzer beater attempt clanged no good, sealing VT’s win. Other than missing the last shot, Stephens had an excellent game, leading the team with 18 points and 13 rebounds.
Tech then traveled down the road to Charlottesville but didn’t have any better luck against #16 Virginia. The Jackets actually shot fairly well against Virginia’s vaunted defense (45% from the field, 44% from 3) but Ben Lammers couldn’t get anything going against UVA big man Jack Salt and the Wahoos prevailed, 62-49.
A Blowout and a Buzzer-Beater
Georgia Tech returned home for two more games against AP Top 15 teams. First up was #6 Florida State. In what may have been the best game they played all season, the Jackets ran all over the Seminoles, winning a 78-56 blowout. Tech’s defense was suffocating as the Noles struggled to get anything to go in, shooting under 30% from the field and from deep. Josh Okogie nearly matched his freshman scoring record, putting up 35 points on just 17 field goal attempts.
The Jackets clawed back above 0.500 in ACC play with a thrilling win in an incredible game against #14 Notre Dame. The game was a back and forth affair throughout. With the game tied at 60, Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell missed a short jumper with just seconds remaining. Tadric Jackscon grabbed the rebound and found a streaking Okogie who shook off a lackluster game to lay-in the winning basket as time expired. Tech essentially played just 6 players and got big performances from Jackson and Ben Lammers.
Sitting at 5-4 halfway through conference play, the NCAA Tournament was suddenly a realistic goal for Georgia Tech. Winning one or both of the upcoming road games would have been huge for the Yellow Jackets, but it was not to be. First up was a rematch with the Clemson Tigers. From the opening tip, the Jackets lacked energy and, outside of Ben Lammers, couldn’t get anything going, dropping the game 74-62. For his part, Lammers scored 25 points on 12-18 shooting. The bigger issue for the stretch run was the loss of backup big man AD Gueye to a broken wrist, essentially eliminating Tech’s frontcourt depth.
The loss of Gueye loomed large immediately as Lammers found himself in foul trouble for the first time all season in Tech’s next game against Wake Forest. Also missing Justin Moore with an injury and with Josh Heath playing but battling the flu, a thin Yellow Jacket team struggled to keep pace with John Collins and the Deacons, losing 81-69. Josh Okogie led all scorers with 23 points, but as a team the Yellow Jackets shot just 36% from the field.
Badly in need of rest, Georgia Tech’s open date in the ACC schedule came at a perfect time. The Jackets did have a game during the open period, but it was against Division II Tusculum. This game went much better than Tech’s D-II exhibition game. Every player on Tech’s roster scored (except Moore who was still out with an injury) and the Jackets won 96-58.
Returning to ACC play, the Jackets played arguably their worst half of the season against Boston College before rallying in the second half to win 65-54. The Yellow Jackets missed 22 of their first 24 shots and scored only 15 points in the first half. Additionally, Quinton Stephens went down early with a leg injury, missing most of the game. The defense kept the Eagles from running away and in the second half, Tadric Jackson led the way for the Yellow Jackets, finishing with a career-high 29 points.
On a midweek trip to Miami, the Jackets’ normally elite defense abandoned them as the Hurricanes shot 55% from the field and 50% from deep. The final score was 70-61 in favor of Miami, but the game probably wasn’t that close. Okogie led the Jackets with 18 points and Lammers contributed 15 but was ineffective on the glass, finishing with a season-low 3 rebounds.
The Jackets returned home for the White Out game against Syracuse. In a tough, physical game Ben Lammers went the distance, playing all 40 minutes and leading Tech to a 71-65 victory. The Lamminator dominated the game, scoring 23 points on 11-18 shooting and pulling down 7 rebounds to go with 7 blocks, 3 steals, and 2 assists. With just four games remaining in the season, the Yellow Jackets looked to be sitting right on the NCAA bubble.
Late Season Swoon
Unfortunately, Tech’s lack of depth would catch up to them down the stretch. Playing just about 48 hours after defeating Syracuse, the Yellow Jackets struggled in a rematch with NC State. The Wolfpack led most of the game and, despite a furious comeback attempt from the Yellow Jackets, emerged victorious. Ben Lammers had nothing left in the tank after his dominant Syracuse performance, shooting 1-9 from the field and finishing with just 6 points. Josh Okogie had another excellent performance against the ‘Pack but his 25 points weren’t quite enough.
Tech faced another 2-game-in-48-hours scenario the next weekend, starting in South Bend against #21 Notre Dame. The Yellow Jackets hung around all game but didn’t have enough to pull out the victory, losing by 4. Tadric Jackson led the Jackets with 20 points, while Lammers and Okogie both turned in double-doubles. Tech then returned home and had one day to prepare for the Pitt Panthers. In something of an ugly game, Lammers led the Jackets to their 8th ACC win, scoring 20 points in a 61-52 Senior Day win.
In the final game of the regular season, Tech traveled up to the Carrier Dome to try and sweep fellow bubble team Syracuse. A road win in a hostile environment would have been huge for the Jackets’ NCAA chances but it was not to be. Syracuse shot 63% from three and ran away in the second half, blowing out Tech 90-61. Okogie led Tech with a quiet 16 points.
Needing to make an ACC tournament run to have a shot at an at-large bid to the Big Dance, Tech stumbled out of the gate, losing to Pitt 61-59 and sealing their tournament fate. Much like the matchup just a week earlier, this was a defensive struggle on both sides. Tadric Jackson scored 17 points to lead the Jackets.
After stumbling down the stretch, Georgia Tech found itself on the outside of the NCAA Tournament yet again. However, for the second consecutive season they received a bid to the NIT. Not only that, but with first round opponent Indiana declining to host for strange reasons, the Jackets would get to open the tournament at home. In front of an outstanding crowd, Josh Okogie led Tech to a 75-63 win over the Hoosiers. Okogie led all scorers with 24 points.
With georgia losing their NIT opener, the Jackets got to host one final game against the Belmont Bruins. In his final game in front of the home crowd, Quinton Stephens scored a career-high 23 points to send the Yellow Jackets to the NIT quarterfinals. For that quarterfinal matchup, Tech hit the road to face Ole Miss. The Jackets jumped out to an early lead and held on to win 74-66, clinching a trip to Madison Square Garden. Ben Lammers won a matchup of outstanding big men, scoring 20 points and 8 blocks.
For just the second time in school history, Georgia Tech made it to the NIT Final Four in New York City. First up was Cal State Bakersfield, who was the first 8 seed to make the NIT semifinals. The Yellow Jackets had no problems dispatching the Roadrunners, winning 76-61. Okogie scored 22 points to lead Tech in scoring. Lammers contributed 15 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 blocks.
While this season was unquestionably one of the most memorable seasons in recent Georgia Tech history, the ending will likely leave a sour taste in the mouths of Yellow Jacket players and fans alike. The Yellow Jackets were no match for TCU in the NIT Championship game, ending the season on the receiving end of a 88-56 blowout. The Frogs jumped out to a lead so fast it felt like they were up 10 before the ball was even tipped. No one had a good night for the Jackets. Tadric Jackson had the best scoring night with 19 points, but needed 14 shots and committed 6 turnovers.
Despite the disappointing showing in the season’s final game, it’s hard to call this season anything less than a success. Coming into a season with a bunch of freshmen and role players, the Yellow Jackets won 21 games, 8 in the ACC, and advanced to the finals of a postseason tournament. Along the way they found a pair of stars in Josh Okogie and Ben Lammers. While they certainly have work to do before next season, it’s hard not to be excited about the future of Georgia Tech basketball.