Countdown to Tipoff: 36 Days
Arkansas: November 25th at 7 pm
In the second of back to back games against SEC competition, Georgia Tech will welcome Arkansas to McCamish Pavillion. This contest comes on the heels of a road game against uga as the Jackets will look to feast on the Razorbacks in their final game before the Thanksgiving holiday.
Arkansas comes into this season as a bit of an unknown quantity after deciding to make a coaching change following the 2018-19 season. Mike Anderson led the program admirably for eight seasons, taking the Razorbacks to three NCAA and two NIT appearances. Ultimately, it seemed that Anderson’s ceiling of an opening weekend tournament participant had been established and many felt that it was time to see if a new direction could bring the team to new heights. The attempt to answer that question was Eric Musselman, the highly sought-after Nevada head coach who led the Wolfpack to an Elite 8 appearance in 2018. Prior to his time with Nevada, Musselman spent time as head coach of the Golden State Warriors from 2002-04 with many stops as an assistant in both the NBA and NCAA and as a head coach internationally and in the D-league in between.
Musselman is known for his player development and X’s and O’s acumen on the offensive side of the ball. Under Anderson, Arkansas’ identity was their high press and up-tempo style, often running a watered-down version of the “40 minutes of hell” famously employed by Nolan Richardson during the Razorbacks heyday in the early 90s. Per Ken Pom, Arkansas consistently ranked in the top 100 in adjusted tempo during Richardson’s time with the program. It will be interesting to see how Arkansas transitions out of this style of play with Musselman’s arrival. While he has said he believes in adapting his coaching to fit his players’ abilities, Musselman’s teams at Nevada frequently used 4-guard and 5-out offenses that favored floor spacing and three-point shooting. This was partially due to the undersized nature of those teams, but also speaks to his NBA background and willingness to bring something new to the table.
On the court, the Razorbacks were a young team in 2018-19, rostering no seniors. They finished 18-16 overall with an 8-10 SEC record and middling 9th place finish while being led by three double digit scorers, Daniel Gafford (16.9 points per game), Isaiah Joe (13.9) and Mason Jones (13.6). Gafford was the focal point of last year’s squad as a dominant front court presence who also averaged 9 rebounds and 2 blocks per game and will be sorely missed after declaring for the NBA draft in 2019.
Jones and Joe combined to form the Hogs back court and it bodes well for them that they are just juniors and sophomores respectively coming into the 2019 season. They excelled as both high volume and highly efficient three-point shooters around the talented Gafford. Joe made 113 threes at a 42% clip. While Jones didn’t have quite the same impact from behind the arc (76 threes at 37%) his game is a bit more well-rounded as he has shown the ability to get to the basket and the free throw line as a result. Paired with the offensively inclined Musselman, Joe and Jones should be in for big seasons and could be tough covers for the Jackets.
Arkansas also welcomes two potential high-impact transfers in Jimmy Whitt Jr. and Jeantal Cylla (both rank in ESPN Jeff Borzello’s top 50 eligible transfers for 2019-20). Whitt is another guard who actually began his career in Fayateville and returns after spending last season with SMU while Cylla comes over from UNC Wilmington and provides a bit more size at 6’7. Both were double digit scorers at their previous schools and it would not be surprising to see Arkansas frequently use lineups featuring Jones, Joe, Whitt, and Cylla as all can stretch the floor and play the perimeter-oriented game that Musselman has favored in the past.
As typical with most smaller lineups however, the biggest question mark for Arkansas will revolve around their interior play, specifically their ability to defend and rebound. A quick look at their roster shows that they have no players taller than 6’8” and very little experienced depth in the front court. Replacing Gafford will be a tall task but Arkansas will have to hope that somebody can emerge for them as the season gets rolling.
Keys for the Jackets
This transitions nicely into the keys to the game for Tech, the biggest of which should be to exploit the Razorbacks lack of size in all facets of the game. Moses Wright and James Banks will need to provide an interior presence early and often in this game. One stat that will probably go a long way to deciding the outcome will be offensive rebounds and second chance points. The Jackets must control this area of the game because it is unlikely that they will be able to match the outside shooting prowess that this Arkansas team possesses.
In the same vein, I think getting to line consistently and making its free throws will be vital for Tech. This will also allow them to slow the game down a little bit which is especially important when GT is playing Wright and Banks together in a traditional two big lineup. There may be times when Tech needs to go to a smaller lineup to match up with Arkansas’ quickness. It will be interesting to see who can step up for Tech in these situations as a “stretch four.”
Finally, defending the three-ball will also be a huge key. This often goes without saying in college basketball especially nowadays, but it feels especially important in this game. I expect the three-point shot to play a large part in the Hogs attack based on their roster and coaching philosophy.
On paper, this game feels like one that is winnable for Tech. Both teams bring a similar talent level to the table, but Tech should have more chemistry at this point with Arkansas welcoming many new faces as well as a new head coach and system. Both team are built very differently so this game could ultimately come down to whichever side does a better job in playing to its strengths.
Nebraska: December 4th at 7:15 pm
In many ways, Tech’s match-up with the Nebraska Cornhuskers as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge feels very similar to its tilt against Arkansas. Once again, the Jackets will play host to a team making a change at head coach. And once again, that new head coach is a well renowned offensive mind with an NBA background.
Tim Miles spent seven seasons in Lincoln, finishing his tenure with one NCAA tournament and two NIT appearances. Without question, Nebraska is a tough place to win basketball games and Miles’ teams often found themselves hovering around the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Hoping to change their fortunes is Fred Hoiberg, who most recently served as head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Prior to coaching in the NBA, he spent five seasons as the head coach of his alma mater, Iowa State, where he resurrected a down trodden program and turned them into a regular NCAA Tournament fixture. Born in Lincoln, Hoiberg hopes to once again bring new success to a place he has connections to. His teams at Iowa State were known for their up-tempo, highly efficient offenses that excelled at spreading the floor with multiple shooters.
One major difference between Arkansas and Nebraska is the makeup of their respective teams. The Cornhuskers relied heavily on four upper class-men in 2018-19, all of whom scored in double figures. None of those players however, will return this year as three were seniors and the lone junior, Isaiah Roby, elected to leave before his senior season. Beyond that, Nebraska also dealt with a rash of transfers due to the coaching change. All told, Nebraska will be without its top nine scorers from last season, its leading returning scorer being junior guard, Thorir Thorbjarnarson, a lightly recruited player from Iceland who averaged 2.0 points last year.
So, while Arkansas will certainly be relying on some new pieces, Nebraska will be experiencing that tenfold. Instead, they will look to rely on two of their own transfers, Matej Kavas and Haanif Cheatham, who also made Borzello’s top 50 list. Kavas is a sweet shooting big man from Seattle who shot 45.8 percent from 3 while averaging 15.2 ppg in 2017-18 and 10.3 ppg in 2018-19. Cheatham is on his third stop after playing at Florida Gulf Coast and Marquette and offers good size as a 6’5” shooting guard. Nebraska will look for these two seniors to provide leadership in spades as the rest of roster is mostly comprised of freshmen, the most intriguing being Samari Curtis, a four-star rated guard by ESPN from Xenia, OH.
Keys for the Jackets
The biggest key to this game for the Jackets is going to be not beating themselves. As evidenced above, Nebraska is not working with a ton of talent and the Jackets should go in absolutely expecting to win this game. They must avoid miscues like missed free throws, foul trouble and especially turnovers, something that plagued last year’s squad.
Hoiberg is an excellent coach, so the Jackets can’t take this game lightly even though they are likely to come in as a solid favorite. A staple of his teams at Iowa State was a do it all big man (think Royce White or Georges Niang) who could handle, pass and shoot. Kavas seems like he could become that guy for Nebraska, so the Jackets should look to force the ball out of his hands and make some of the more unproven players on this roster beat them. But if Tech plays the high energy, hustle ball that it typically does and plays smart enough, it should walk away with the W.