The start of college basketball season should be cause for celebration for all 351 Division I teams. Unfortunately, recent developments and offseason scandals have cast a negative shadow over some of the programs as we tip off the new season on November 10. Two of those teams actually play each other, as the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and UCLA Bruins battle it out in Shanghai, China in the opener for both squads. A little late-night CBB wagering is available at DSI Sportsbook, where the Bruins are favored by 8.5 points with a total of 145.5.
The Yellow Jackets were one of the better stories in the college basketball world last season. They won 21 games and made it to the NIT Championship Game, where they lost to TCU by 32 points. Georgia Tech was picked to finish last in the ACC, but had a respectable 8-10 record in conference play in Josh Pastner’s first season. UCLA’s season ended in Sweet Sixteen disappointment with an 11-point loss to Kentucky. The Bruns rolled through the regular season at 29-4 and knocked off Kent State and Cincinnati before running into the #2 seed Wildcats.
The Yellow Jackets start the season very shorthanded. Despite returning most of last year’s production, suspensions will give Georgia Tech a different look in the season opener. The school self-reported some improper benefit violations that involved sophomore Josh Okogie and senior Tadric Jackson. Okogie led the team last season with 16.1 points per game and was also the team’s third-leading rebounder. Jackson, expected to be a senior leader this season, had 12.1 points and contributed in a lot of ways on the defensive end. Without those two players, we have seen the line swing in UCLA’s direction after opening -7. Head coach Josh Pastner is still trying to build this program up and has done a better job of accumulating depth with his recruiting classes, but those two losses are huge, especially against a team like UCLA.
Ben Lammers gained a lot of fans and followers with his performance last season for the Yellow Jackets. The 6-foot-10 senior from San Antonio had 14.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. He also averaged 3.4 blocks per game, which ranked among the country’s best in protecting the rim. Lammers was not used much as a freshman or a sophomore, with just 5.9 and 14.8 minutes per game, respectively. He took his game to the next level and was a key component in Georgia Tech’s NIT run. The suspensions of Okogie and Jackson may allow true freshmen Curtis Haywood II and Jose Alvarado to get their feet wet. Both are four-star recruits that made long treks from Yukon, Oregon and Brooklyn, New York to play in Atlanta. Fourth-leading scorer Quinton Stephens exhausted his eligibility, so the Yellow Jackets will be down three starters that averaged at least 30 minutes per game last season.
Roster turnover in college basketball is simply the nature of the beast. With different draft requirements and a lot of transfers, it can be very tough to keep track of who has gone where. UCLA lost some pretty big names from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team. Most notably, TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford, and Lonzo Ball took their games up to the next level. Unlike Georgia Tech, however, programs like UCLA can simply reload on the fly. UCLA’s big freshmen recruiting class featured two five-stars and three four-stars per ESPN’s recruiting rankings. That group includes four ESPN Top 100 players. Jaylen Hands is the standout as a 6-foot-3 point guard from San Diego. Kris Wilkes will be in uniform and should get good minutes tonight, but three other freshmen will not. Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, a couple of four-star guys, and LiAngelo Ball, a three-star recruit, were arrested for shoplifting. They will not play and could face jail time in China for the incident. With only two of the team’s six players that averaged double figures back in the mix, points have to come from somewhere, and only two of the freshmen will be ready to contribute.
Those two returnees are Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh. Welsh, the big seven-footer, will have an interesting matchup with Lammers in this game. UCLA likes to take a lot of jump shots and took 872 three-pointers last season. The unique shooting backdrop in Shanghai could be interesting and could keep this game closer than it should be. Holiday shot 41 percent from distance last season and he will be relied on for scoring as the freshmen start to settle in. Hands will be the starting point guard and has the chance to be one of the country’s top one-and-done players if he can develop as a scorer and a distributor. UCLA’s athleticism is never in question, but the Bruins do come into this game with some questions in terms of experience.
College Basketball Free Pick: UCLA Bruins -8.5
The Bruins have more athleticism and more scoring options, even with their losses and the suspensions. Georgia Tech is missing three of the four guys that averaged double figures on a team that only scored 67 points per game. Even against a team with defensive questions like UCLA, it’s hard to see the Yellow Jackets keeping pace in this one. The Bruins will be happy to get back to California after what was supposed to be a fun bonding experience for the players turned into an international incident and they should do so with a comfortable win in pocket.