After two bad losses to start the year, Georgia Tech probably wishes their next game was against a slightly easier opponent than 8-time national champion Kentucky. Not exactly an easy opponent to get the season back on track against. Unfortunately however, that is the case and the Yellow Jackets will take on the Wildcats on Sunday at 5:00 PM EST from State Farm Arena as part of the 2020 Holiday Hoopsgiving.
Tech comes into the game with a 0-2 record after dropping their season opener to Georgia State by a score of 123-120 in 4OT. Tech followed that up with an 83-73 loss to Mercer two days later. The good news? The Jackets have had nine days to right the ship and prepare for Kentucky. One change that we know of for the preparation leading up to the Kentucky game? The Jackets have moved away from non-contact practice, which they were doing for the majority of the summer, fall, and preseason in hopes of avoiding a 14 day shutdown due to COVID-19 rules and regulations. While one can certainly respect the idea of trying to prevent a 14 day shutdown for the team, it was clearly a flawed plan given the outcome of the team’s first two games.
Pastner says he was wrong going only non-contact practices ahead of the first two games. He said it was good for player safety but not good for the team. He thought with a veteran team they would snap back on D and they didn’t. They needed practice which they are getting now.— Kelly Quinlan (@Kelly_Quinlan) December 2, 2020
Tech isn’t the only team that enters this game on a two game losing streak. Kentucky has dropped back to back games against Richmond and Kansas and sit at 1-2 on the season, with their lone win coming against Morehead State. While a loss is a loss, the two losses to Richmond and Kansas are not quite comparable to Tech’s losses to Georgia State and Mercer. After beating Kentucky, Richmond moved up to 19th in the AP Top 25 poll, their highest ranking since 1957-58 and their first time inside the poll since 2010. Kansas is once again a national title contender and ranked #7 in the AP Top 25 poll.
As is often the case, Kentucky is not a team with a lot of experience, ranking 287th in the nation in that metric (quite a contrast to the Jackets who rank 6th in the country in experience). If you’re going to have to play them, early on in the season is the time to do it. The Wildcats have the nations top ranked freshman class, with a pair of top 10 consensus five stars in Brandon Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke. But it doesn't stop there; Kentucky brings in 4 other high four star recruits in Isaiah Jackson, Devin Askew, Lance Ware, and Cam’Ron Fletcher. Kentucky also brings in three highly sought after transfers in Olivier Sarr, Jacob Toppin, and Davion Mintz. Sarr is a name Tech fans will recognize. The 7 footer transferred to Kentucky from Wake Forest, where Yellow Jacket fans had a chance to see him play over the last three seasons.
Tech will have to find a way to limit the production of freshman Brandon Boston Jr, who has been predicted by some to be a top 3 pick in next year’s NBA draft. In three games this season, Boston looks every bit the part of the star player he is projected to be. He leads the team in minutes and scoring, averaging 15.7 points per game. On top of the scoring, he’s bringing in nearly 8 rebounds per game as well. Sarr and Clarke both are averaging 11 points per game to create a balanced scoring attack behind Boston.
Offensively, this is a Kentucky team that has not been strong shooting the ball (ranked 217th in Effective FG%) nor taking care of the ball (ranked 238th in turnover percentage). Where they have been strong offensively is crashing the glass, where they rank inside the top 15 nationally. The Jackets will have to ensure they box out the Wildcats and should keep a particular eye on freshman Isaiah Jackson, a freak athlete who has been feasting on the boards this season.
Kentucky is extremely strong defensively with one of the best defenses in the country. They are tall and athletic and have stifled opposing offenses so far. Even #7 Kansas shot just 30% from the field in their matchup. In that game, the previously mentioned Isaiah Jackson had eight, yes eight, blocks. Tech will be seriously tested offensively on Sunday.
In summary, while Kentucky has loads of talent and a lot of strengths, they are vulnerable, as evidenced by their 1-2 record. In order to beat them however, the Jackets level of play will need to be light years beyond what it was in their opening two games. With nine days to prepare for this game and a senior laden group, Tech should come out with a much stronger effort than we saw in their first two games, but will it be enough to avoid an 0-3 start?