Two weeks ago, the Georgia Tech-UCLA season opener taking place Friday night (Saturday morning in China) looked far different than it does now.
The Yellow Jackets looked like a decent matchup for the Bruins, who won 31 games and reached the elite 8 last season, but lost a lot off of the roster. Tech also was a different team than the one that surprised the ACC with a 21-win season and a run to the NIT championship game, but had preseason All-ACC selections in center Ben Lammers and Josh Okogie, not to mention returning sixth man Tadric Jackson.
Instead, Tech is without Jackson and Okogie. The latter dislocated his left index finger Oct. 28, and then both players were withheld by the school from regular-season competition for the time being after determining that both had broken NCAA rules regarding impermissible benefits. Neither made the historic trip to China.
You may have heard about UCLA’s issues. The Bruins are without three freshmen after they were arrested Tuesday for shoplifting at a Louis Vuitton store in Hangzhou, China, a story that has become a point of conversation nationally and taken away the focus from the Pac-12’s third annual season opener in Shanghai, much to the chagrin of the Pac-12.
And then Tech coach Josh Pastner got his turn in the broiler Tuesday night – Tuesday morning in the U.S. – when the man who provided the airfare, food and apparel to Okogie and Jackson revealed himself in a CBS Sports article and made allegations of NCAA rules violations against Pastner.
“It’s been a very eventful trip,” guard Justin Moore said. “But overall, it’s been great. We came on this trip to win. This is a basketball trip, but also a trip to experience someplace most of us have never have been and just soak all this up.”
A somewhat ironic aspect of how the shoplifting saga, and to a lesser extent, the CBS Sports article on Pastner, have blown up is that it doesn’t seem to have affected the Jackets, spending the week 7,700 miles from home in a country that doesn’t demonstrate much interest in NCAA rules violations or American college sports in general.
In a city of almost 25 million people, the game failed to draw 7,500 people in its first two iterations. Tech-UCLA will be played Friday night (Saturday morning in Shanghai) in Baoshan Arena, which seats about 6,000.
In China, practically players’ sole companions have been each other, and their time has largely been spent bartering for counterfeit luxury goods, practicing and enjoying the sights of Shanghai.
“A good experience and a wonderful opportunity for me and my teammates to be here in China to play our opening game,” Alvarado said.
Moore said Pastner brought up the CBS Sports story in a video session, and that seems to be about it.
“He just said that everything was OK and he’s doing his job, and everything will be all right,” Moore said.
Only the game can answer for sure, but the emotional impact of the police questioning of Jose Alvarado, Jon Brown and Moore in correlation with the UCLA arrests seems to be negligible. Alvarado and Moore are two of the more social players on the team, and it doesn’t appear that Tuesday’s events have weighed them down.
The game may have taken on different meaning for most, but not necessarily for the Jackets. They’re without two of their top three players, have been away from home for more than a week and been through a strange week, but they’re just ready to get going.
“It’s like, (Saturday) we finally play to open our season,” Alvarado said Friday evening (Shanghai time). “It’s like, Wow, it’s here now.”