With twelve games left in the regular season, Tech men’s basketball has demonstrated real progress from seasons past in Brian Gregory’s tenure. They have scored at an impressive rate, dethroned excellent teams and provided an entertaining product. The question remains whether the Jackets can do more than play spoiler to championship contenders, and they will begin to answer that question on Saturday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion, defending their home court against the No. 17 Louisville Cardinals.
Louisville is the very definition of a perennial powerhouse: the last time the team failed to make the NCAA Tournament was the 2005-2006 season. That success starts at the top with Rick Pitino, the only coach in sport history to lead three different teams to NCAA Final Four appearances, per his induction profile in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. After a brief stint in the NBA, Pitino took a Cardinals team that had not won a March Madness game in four years under coach Denny Crum and guided them to the Final Four within another four years and a national championship in 2013. Last season, Pitino’s squad reached the Elite Eight, falling to Michigan State, which would subsequently lose to eventual champion Duke.
The Cards have returned with a vengeance this season, dropping only two games, road rematch against No. 3 Michigan State and a nailbiting contest at SEC powerhouse Kentucky. Despite losing last year’s leading scorers, Louisville has filled the void left in their absence through the elevated play of sophomore center Chinanu Onuaku. Onuaku has evolved from an ancillary contributor to a two-way presence, dictating the post game on offense and defending the rim ferciously on the other end of the court. He has quickly eaned the praise of his fellow cardinals. Teammate Trey Lewis claimed that “Onaku … can be the most dominant player in the ACC,” per the Louisville Courier-Journal. He has scored double-digit points in 10 of his last 12 games and perhaps more impressively, he has posted a double-double in five straight games to start conference play. Tech may be forced to commit multiple players to stopping him on offense and he could alter the Jackets’ gameplan when they have the ball.
Tech’s unexpected home win against Virginia set fans abuzz, but Brian Gregory’s unit has lost four of its last five games. Another loss in this game and the team will set itself back with less and less time to recover as the season wanes.
Despite the slump, senior guard-forward Marcus Georges-Hunt has come into his own to start 2016. After only reaching 20 points in a game thrice this season entering the team’s Jan. 2 game at UNC, he has surpassed that mark twice already since, including a 25-point outburst against the Tar Heels. Most impressive in that game was his free-throw performance. Making 12 of 15 attempts played a significant role in keeping the Jackets close and signaled growth from a player who has improved his average at the line from 62.9% as a freshman to an even 80% going into the Louisville contest and whose scoring average is a career-high despite playing fewer minutes than he has in the past. The Jackets will need Gregory to be at his best should they hope to unseat a Cardinals team that is sure to be favored.
A win against Louisville on Saturday won’t assure the Jackets of its first NCAA tournament berth in years, nor will a loss deny them that opportunity. There is a great deal of ACC play left, many opponents remaining on the schedule and opportunities unseized. If Tech manages to prevail, though, it would be evidence that, like their star Georges-Hunt, they have grown from a nuisance in the eyes of top teams to a contender that deserves to be feared in its own right. The ball is in their court.