Georgia Tech gets out-defended in losing to Kentucky

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 14: James Banks III #1 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets blocks the shot of c #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the first half at Rupp Arena on December 14, 2019 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Credit: Michael Hickey

Credit: Michael Hickey

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 14: James Banks III #1 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets blocks the shot of c #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the first half at Rupp Arena on December 14, 2019 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Under Josh Pastner, Georgia Tech basketball has lived off its defense. Under the bright lights of Rupp Arena, the Yellow Jackets ran afoul of an opponent that guards just as well as they do – and has its usual complement of McDonald’s All-Americans to make the occasional basket. Put another way, there was nothing new to see here.

That Kentucky beat Tech is no shock. Kentucky’s good, though probably not great. For the Jackets, the disappointment will be in how little chance they gave themselves. They lost 67-53. It wasn’t a rout, but the Wildcats won without straining.

Michael DeVoe, Tech’s leading scorer on the season, mustered five points against four turnovers. James Banks scored six points and fouled out in 25 minutes. The defenders got out-defended.

Tech scored 26 points over the first 12 minutes and 37 seconds. It would score 27 thereafter. Over the end of the first half and the start of the second, Kentucky outscored the Jackets 21-4 to build a working lead. When Tech drew close … well, here’s Pastner.

“It’s 44-41. We left 11 points on the board. Michael Devoe, one of the best 3-point shooters in the country, misses two open looks. Khalid Moore has a 3 that goes in the basket and comes out. Asanti Price misses a layup. That’s the game … When you’re playing a better team on the road, you just don’t have any margin for error when you get those kinds of looks.”

We stipulate that Tech is working without point guard Jose Alvarado. Due to an ankle strain, he has logged 16 minutes – all against Georgia on Nov. 20 – since the Jackets’ opening road win at N.C. State. The USC transfer Jordan Usher becomes eligible this week. The reality, though, is that Tech has squandered a chance to make hay before the ACC season truly gets going. It’s 4-4. It hasn’t posted a resume-building win. (Then again, if the NCAA turns down Tech’s appeal of its postseason ban, resumes won’t matter.)

Pastner again: “I thought we executed our game plan. We put ourselves in position to win the game.”

Yes, but also no. When it came time to make a shot, Tech couldn’t. Pastner has coached the heck out of this team – on one end of the floor. The offense just isn’t there, which mostly means the talent isn’t there.

Pastner on Kentucky: “The eight they’re playing are all high-level guys. They’re all going to play in the NBA.”

The run-up to this game centered on the coaches. For one year, John Calipari was Pastner’s boss. Then the former split for the Bluegrass, leaving the latter the main man in Memphis. Calipari told the AJC’s Ken Sugiura that his former assistant was “underrated as a coach; he doesn’t get enough credit.” Pastner offered his take on Calipari to Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the pull-quote being:

“I think (Calipari will) go into politics. And I would not be surprised if he runs for president of the United States. You can quote me. I’m being dead serious.”

Cal the Possible Pol was the lead story in the Herald-Leader’s Friday sports section. Tipton also offered his arch vision of how such a change might work: “No more kid go pro. It would be quid pro quo.”

As for basketball: The Wildcats were ranked No. 8 nationally, largely on the strength of a victory over then-No. 1 Michigan State. For one week, Kentucky ascended to the top of the polls, only to unhorsed in Rupp by mighty … er, Evansville. The Wildcats had beaten nobody else of consequence. (We pause to note: Duke lost at Cameron as the No. 1 team to Stephen F. Austin. Weird season, folks.)

Tech uses different strains of zone defenses. Teams that shoot the 3-pointer well – as so-so Syracuse did in its rather astonishing 97-63 victory at McCamish Pavilion last week – can beat those zones. Teams that can’t … well, they can be made to look bad. Which brings us to the Big Blue.

Over eight games, the Wildcats had tried 124 treys; that ranked 345th among 349 Division I teams. In Evansville’s shock-the-world upset the Wildcats were 4-for-17 on 3-pointers. You had to figure that a similar meager output against Tech could put the Jackets in prime position for Pastner’s biggest win since January 2017, which was a while ago.

To Kentucky’s credit, it didn’t just stand back and hoist. It tried only 12 treys, making four. But it found ways to cut inside Tech’s zone. Ashton Hagans, the Newton County High product who’d committed to Georgia before Mark Fox was fired, scored 21 points, took seven rebounds and made seven assists. (He also had six turnovers, but hey.) The sophomore point guard was the difference. Tech’s point guard, we say again, is hurt.

Said Calipari: “It’s hard to play 40 minutes against a zone, especially if you’re a team like us that doesn’t shoot a lot of 3’s.”

But his team made do. He has good players. After Tech closed within 44-41, it missed seven consecutive shots. Then Moore scored. Then the Jackets followed with five more empty possessions. Kentucky led 55-43, and that was that.

Afterward, the Kentucky media asked Pastner a half-dozen questions about Calipari. Pastner repeated his contention that Calipari would run for something. When the man himself took the podium, he made an international overture. To Kelly Craft – the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who’s a UK alum – he said, “Kelly, can you please, please figure out how I can meet the Queen (of England)? I love her. I read and watch everything about her.”

Then he snorted. “She’s going to say, ‘Who is THIS guy?’ ”