Josh Pastner is still stuck on Tuesday. The big boys – Duke, Virginia, Carolina – aren’t even in town yet, and Georgia Tech is again headed home.
Back when the ACC tournament featured only nine teams, the 8-vs.-9 opening session was known as the Les Robinson Invitational, a nod to the N.C. State coach who landed there four years running. With 15 in the field, Tuesday has become the day of the double-digit seeds. Three times running, Pastner’s ACC stay hasn’t lasted into Wednesday, to say nothing of Thursday or Friday.
“The best thing we can do is not put ourselves into position to be playing on Tuesday,” Pastner said, er, Tuesday, speaking after his Jackets fell 78-71 to Notre Dame, a 15th seed that has worked against 14 ACC opponents and beaten only two. “If you’re not playing on Tuesday, you’re probably going to be in the (NCAA) tournament. That’s what we’ve got to accomplish.”
The end of Tech’s regular season – it won three of its final five games – made it almost possible to believe a corner might have been turned. Then the Jackets, who finished 14-18 and not 8-24 only because they played world-class defense, yielded 52 points in the first half.
Said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey: “We’ve not had a half like that. I told the halftime interviewer, ‘We wait until Charlotte to find ourselves?’”
Down 20 points at the break and 17 with 8-1/2 minutes remaining, the Jackets finally surged. The Fighting Irish – who lost the useful Rex Pflueger to a torn ACL in December and saw Nate Laszewski, who scored 14 points in the first 18 minutes, limp off after Tech’s Brandon Alston undercut him on a layup – were out of bodies. Their starting guards played the entire game. Forward John Mooney sat for two minutes. Sans Laszewski, the only sub Brey trusted even for a 30-second stint was Chris Doherty, who provided a weird and vital tip-in.
Brey, deadpan: “I think he made a shot off his forehead at the end of the shot clock. It’s a thing we work on with our big guys.”
Almost everything had to go right for Notre Dame to beat Tech, which on talent was clearly the superior side. (It’s not often we can say that, but there it is.) As has been the case for Pastner three times on three March Tuesdays, his Jackets were undone by another double-digit seed. In the grand scheme, that didn’t mean much: Tech could have gone 4-1 in this event and still not made the Big Dance. But if you’re a program looking for any patch of traction, another ACC one-and-done makes us ask just how far Tech has come since it sent Brian Gregory packing.
Pastner: “I really believe if we had Josh Okogie back this year, we would have been in the (NCAA) tournament. But we didn’t. He starts for the Timberwolves.”
Notre Dame won the ACC in 2015 and reached the NCAA’s Elite Eight two years running. It has since run low on players, which is how it went 3-15 in league play. But Brey, a superior game coach, was able to wrong-foot Tech’s matchup zone by stationing John Mooney in the high post and having him find open shooters on the wing and cutters on the baseline.
Tech stayed as close as it did only because sophomore Moses Wright did his James-Forrest-in-Charlotte impersonation, scoring 25 points and making 12 of 18 shots. Pastner afterward described Wright as “a zero-star recruit,” inducing pained looks from the man himself, seated five feet away.
Tech’s ability to defend, this first half notwithstanding? That’s a good thing. The improvement shown by Wright and James Banks (12 points, 11 rebounds, four assists) and Khalid Moore (11 points)? More good things. Alas, the whole thing was undone by point guard Jose Alvarado not scoring over the first 38 minutes.
Pastner: “He’s our engine in a sense. It’s not that he has to make 30 points – it’s that he’s got to have his energy level. I didn’t think he had the same fight he usually has.”
Alvarado’s lone basket pulled the Jackets within six. Moore’s trey cut it to three with 1:06 left. Notre Dame had spent the second half in a semi-Four-Corners, which is tough to do with a shot clock, but now the Irish had to make a shot. “We’ve been in search of that play,” Brey said, and this time his team found it. Mooney turned and hit over Wright. Ballgame.
Thus did Tech’s season end, a season that marked neither a retreat – Tech was 13-19 last year, and that was with Okogie – or an advance. “Next season,” Pastner said, “we’ve got to move the needle. … I really believe we’re in a position to do that, to take the next step and put ourselves in position for the NCAA tournament.”
For that to happen, Pastner said, Tech needs to rank among the ACC’s top nine, something that hasn’t happened on his watch. “That gets you to Wednesday, and you probably put yourself in position for the NCAA tournament, as you see with Clemson and North Carolina State (who’ll meet Wednesday in something of a bracket play-in).”
His closing words: “Let’s get our butts back in the NCAA tournament.”
Not since 2010 has Tech appeared in the only tournament that matters. In three years of trying, Pastner has managed a trip to the NIT final, a handful of eye-opening upsets and three lean Tuesdays in March. For this coach, next season must yield more.
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