The chase for 3 straight NCAA Tournament appearances
Two years after a Sweet Sixteen appearance and a year after faltering in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Kansas, Nell Fortner has a new team to work with, one unfamiliar to those who watched Tech the last few seasons. Tech recently was powered by stout defense and interior scoring. Last year, the Jackets reached their program high all time ranking at #11 before slipping down the stretch in conference play.
The Jackets return six players and welcome seven new faces between incoming freshman and transfers. Nerea Hermosa and Eylia Love are the only returning starters from last year’s squad, losing Lotta-Maj Lahtinen and Lorela Cubaj to graduation. Sarah Bates departed to West Virginia on a grad transfer. Aixa Wone-Aranaz, Kayla Blackshear, Avyonce Carter, Anisa Clark, and Carmyn Harrison return as well.
So, how does this team adjust to massive overhaul on the roster and carry the success from last season?
If not for Nell’s incredible gets in the transfer portal, any sense this team was going to be relevant in the ACC would’ve been a dream. Instead, the Jackets were blessed with the arrival of Cameron Swartz from Boston College, and Bianca Jackson from Florida State.
The pair of fifth years combined with a swell of freshman guards joining the ranks have Tech both banking on seniority to carry them this year while developing the depth of the next couple seasons. The team has much to figure out in terms of how their offense will gel and if they can keep the stout defense from last season with the new faces. Making necessary strides in those directions has been a talking point of Fortner after the initial two games this season.
This puts the Jackets in a new spot under the Fortner era. The backbone of her most successful team is gone, but the next spine might already be here. Tonie Morgan has already made an offensive impact against Georgia State and Kennesaw State, starting both games in what we expected to be Eylia Love’s starting spot. Kara Dunn scored 13 against the Owls.
The biggest contrast though has been what the offense is built for. Tech has plays built to get Cameron Swartz open threes, which likely will be Tech’s most dangerous weapon this season. Seeing how quickly Fortner and her staff is able to hone in a successful offensive identity that can win ACC games is a big question going in this season. For us at FTRS, Swartz and Jackson are the key cogs.
Cameron Swartz – Boston College – Marietta, GA
A great scorer and seasoned guard, Cameron Swartz is a 5th-year grad transfer, whose ability and experience will prove critical in the success of this year’s team. Nell Fortner showed immediate interest in Swartz after GT and BC faced off last season. The Yellow Jackets struggled to shut down Swartz offensively and afterward, Nell dubbed her a must-grab if she were to ever enter the transfer portal.
At Boston College, Swartz finished in the top 5 on the team in scoring each season, rounding out her senior season as the Eagles’ leading scorer. She averaged 9, 13.4, and 12.9 points each season at BC respectively. She appeared in 82 games for the Eagles, starting in 71. In last week’s exhibition game, Swartz’s scoring ability shone through as she led the jackets in scoring with 12 points. Swartz is a dual threat, being able to create offense from outside the three as well as inside the paint. At 5’11, Swartz brings a good bit of height and length to a historically smaller Yellow Jacket team.
Bianca Jackson – Florida State – Montgomery, AL
The daughter of two collegiate head basketball coaches, Bianca Jackson brings a lifetime of game experience and consistent scoring to this year’s squad. The 5’11’’, 5th-year grad transfer spent her freshman and sophomore seasons at South Carolina before transferring to Florida State. As a Gamecock, Jackson played in 68 games, averaging 7.3 points her freshman year and 4 points her sophomore year. Jackson appeared in 45 games as a Seminole, starting in all 19 games of the 2020-21 season, and leading the team that season in scoring (14.1) and assists (68). In her first season at FSU, Jackson was red-shirted due to ACC transfer regulations. During a frustrating season, Bianca showed true leadership by consistently showing up for her teammates in practice and games. In her red-shirt senior season at FSU, Jackson averaged 6.1 points a game, shooting 33.5% from the field and 30.9 from the three. Jackson did not start in the Clayton State exhibition game, but played 21+ minutes and added 6 points to the Jackets’ score.
Hermosa enters her senior year after putting up a 10.6/5.6/1.8 line and leading in free throw shooting at 81%. She was the only Jacket to finish last season shooting over 50% from the field and tied Lotta-Maj Lahtinen at 338 points for most on the team. She takes Cubaj’s title of most minutes played by a Jacket for an active player at 2,354 minutes going into the season. She started every game for Tech last season after two seasons going between the bench and the starting five, setting her own season highs in all cumulative stat categories.
Much of the institutional leadership for this team will have to come from Hermosa on the floor. While the playing style likely will be different considering the roster makeup, her role as a key rebounder and a tall presence in the paint doesn’t. She’s not a three point shooter and rarely will make outside shots, but she gets 10 points a night and can force teams to keep a defender on her to prevent free layups.
The 6’1’’ junior at points last season became the primary scorer, setting career high totals three times last season, capping out at 26 points in the overtime thriller against Clemson. A good Eylia Love in the starting rotation means there are four players that can find ways to score between her, Hermosa, Jackson, and Swartz. Her baseline jumper is one of the most automatic shots this team has. She now is of Tech’s taller players, so her rebounding might take a more important role relative to the other strengths of the team. She hasn’t started in the first two games this year, so whether she’s destined as the sixth man or will find her way back into the rotations is still to be seen.
Free throw shooting is a noticeable spot where if she improves (59% from the line last year), it might be enough to get Tech across the finish line in some games. As one of three players last season to attempt more than 300 shots, her usage is enough of a factor to swing games. Whether we get Clemson night Love or not on a regular basis is to be seen.
Tonie Morgan – Tallahassee, Florida
Tonie very well might be the lasting key piece of Tech’s offense for the next four years after Swartz graduates. Tonie is a fantastic scorer who averaged 20/6/4 in her senior year of high school while shooting 72% from the line. Her explosivity is unmistakable in her film and easily is someone you don’t want to have a mismatch against. She can get to the basket and has the size to take and force contact while driving. Her jumper is clean and absolutely can be a weapon when called upon. My guess is she will play as Eylia Love’s backup initially.
At 5’9’’, Morgan isn’t going to add to the size advantage Tech often held last year against weaker opponents. But, in moments where the offense needs a burst of speed and flavor, Tonie has started both games this season and been productive in getting assists. She spent six years playing varsity basketball for Florida High, winning the All-Big Bend Player of the Year award for the second straight year, having split the honor last year but taking it for herself in 2022. She was the 24th ranked player out of high school on ESPN’s rankings.
Raeven Boswell – Austin, Texas
Raeven stands at 5’11’’ and adds to Tech’s point guard depth, which was severely lacking last year after holding so much promise (hence why Nell added five guards between the portal and first-year recruitment). In the Yellow Jackets’ press release announcing the freshman signings, Coach Fortner noted her quickness and defensive ability as things to look out for, as well as her transition offense. Workout footage she shared on Twitter shows her three point shot to certainly be smooth and a possible weapon.
Boswell was a three sport athlete in high school at Lake Travis, also playing volleyball and running track. Her father, Mark, was an Olympic high jumper, participating in the Sydney and Athens Summer Olympics.
Kara Dunn – Kennesaw, Georgia
Kara also stands 5’11’’ in the guard position, adding to the depth at the position in Nell’s roster. She received a 94 grade on ESPN’s rankings, good enough for 61st overall and 17th at the position. A local from Kennesaw, she’s the reigning AJC All-State player and has all the accolades one would expect from the best player in the state of Georgia (two-time GHSA Region 7 Player of the Year for one). From her high school game tape we can find, she certainly has plenty of upside and can be a great player for Tech as the team’s identity shifts around quickness and offense. Similarly to Cameron Swartz, staying close to home was a priority (Georgia was on her final list of schools with Tech). She’s a multisport athlete as well, and in theory could be an emergency volleyball fill in if a middle blocker was needed.
Inés Noguero Outeiral – Gijón, Spain
The Spanish roster on Nell’s squad expands to four! A recruit we bet President Cabrera helped land (he mentioned in an interview with FTRS’ Jack Purdy on Tech Lively that he’s stepped in to help with the Spanish recruits). Inés like the rest of the freshman likely will have limited playing time. We know the least of her of any of the roster, so as we learn more about her we have it covered.
What we do know: she played in the Euro 18U’s this year. She played 18 minutes in Spain’s first game against Poland with a great stat line: 18min, 4-6 FG, 2-3 3P, 14 pts, 4 REBs. She only scored six more points in four more games over the rest of the tournament.
Season to Date
Tech is guaranteed to play eleven teams currently receiving pre-season AP Poll votes. Among those eleven teams, six were ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 — Louisville, NC State, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, North Carolina, and Michigan. Accordingly, any entrance into the top 25 this season will not be a mere accident. Coach Fortner’s squad took advantage of the flexibility allowed in the non-conference schedule to balance the tough ACC schedule and cursory game against the squad of Athens with a collection of non-conference teams that will ensure the team is tested.
Among the team’s appearing on this year’s non-conference slate, six (Kennesaw State, Auburn, Furman, Athens, Belmont, and Central Michigan) are holdovers from the previous year in addition to the Clayton State exhibition. Among them, Auburn and the Athenians are the Power 5 repeats on the schedule, along with a tournament regular in the form of a very scrappy Belmont team that Tech will take a return visit to after hosting them last year. Auburn, who were in no uncertain terms the worst team in the SEC last year, came out of McCamish with a rather top-to-bottom win, representing Tech’s only loss to the collection of 6 returners. In general, Clean, Old Fashioned Hate, which moves back to Atlanta for this year’s edition, still figures to be the toughest test of the non-conference schedule, and a 5-1 margin among these teams is a fairly likely outcome. Of note, Belmont joins Athens as a vote-getter in the preseason AP Poll.
Tech also adds a number of new and recently played opponents to its schedule for the year. Georgia State is a team typically on the Tech schedule, though the two schools did not match up in 2021-2022. Tech will face South Florida, Michigan, and Air Force in Estero as a part of their multi-team event alongside Michigan State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. In this group of five teams, South Florida and Michigan are reciving votes or ranked. 4-1 or 3-2 is a reasonable expectation among these teams.
In the conference slate, Georgia Tech will face all 14 other ACC teams, with Clemson being the obvious annual home and home on the schedule. Interestingly, the ACC women’s slate quietly become “podded” after the ACC slate was increased to 18 games for the 2019-20 season. Tech’s regular season repeats feature Miami, Florida State, and Wake Forest, as they have for the past several seasons, rather than rotating the other home-and-homes. Tech also played Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC Tournament, giving Tech a 6-3 overall margin, though three of those wins came against an outmatched Wake Forest team and another two against Clemson, a team Tech has traditionally fared quite well against. Miami, a scrappy team, beat Tech twice, while the Jackets and the Seminoles each defended home court. 6-2 or 5-3 are likely results among the pod that makes up the plurality of the Tech ACC schedule. Miami is currently receiving votes in the AP Poll.
The rest of the ACC can largely be segmented into two groups, with the ones to keep an eye on being daunting programs like recent conference powers like Louisville and NC State, along with traditional heavyweight Notre Dame figuring to make a return to form. Much like softball, Virginia Tech is trending rapidly up in women’s basketball, another team to watch. Tech went 0-4 against those teams last year in the regular season alongside another loss to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament. All are ranked in 13th or better in the polls, and a win (or two) would go a long way to a bye and a favorable NCAA Tournament seed. If Tech goes 2-2 or better in these games, figure for the Jackets to be serious contenders for a double bye in the ACC Tournament, a conference championship, and the national title. We would say 1-3 would be a more realistic outcome.
The rest of the ACC slate consists of the teams Tech either can or must beat in the form of North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Syrcasue, Boston College, and Pittsburgh. Some, like Boston College, are historic second division teams, while others, like North Carolina and Duke, are regarded well by the voters and are generally jockeying with Tech for position behind the leaders. Both Duke and UNC are receiving votes or ranked. Tech went a clean 6-0 against these teams last year, and a 5-1 margin would be a positive result this year. Tech has the advantage of playing North Carolina later in January, giving themselves time to get in a groove before playing the top 15 Tar Heels.
Jack Purdy: Last year’s flaming hot start got me to buy into this team enough that my life really did almost become planned around their games. Blanche Alverson in my interview with her mentioned that when they recruit, they recruit for good people first, then talented players. To me that speaks of a team that will be resilient and has respect for each other. The ACC is a strong conference and there will be bumps in the road. If the chemistry clicks offensively and the team stays healthy, I wouldn’t dare put a limit on this team.
Prediction: 18-11, 2nd round of ACC Tournament exit, bubble NCAA Tournament team.
Jake Grant: Tech certainly showed flashes of a great team last year. Tech knocked off a hobbled-but-great UConn team and a few very good opponents in the non-conference schedule, but they mixed in a fair number of clunkers, as well. I am confident that the influx of transfer and freshman talent will give the team a higher floor on offense, but I wonder how the shifting strategy changes the typical stingy defense, especially without program mainstays Lorela Cubaj and Lotta-Maj Lahtinen. Tech’s schedule is tough, but I think 20-9 is doable, but 17-12 is probably more reasonable.
Prediction: Tech will be a tournament team and has the potential to be an upset away from an ACC Championship berth, but the real teller for the postseason showing will be how far away from a high seed they get on the NCAA Tournament bracket.
Tech plays next TONIGHT at 8pm (TV: SECN+) in Auburn in a homecoming game for Head Coach Nell Fortner, Associate Head Coach Blanche Alverson, and Sport Performance Coach Shannon Jackson.