Georgia’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament hopes have been extinguished since I tried giving the Bulldogs the benefit of the doubt. I was ready to toss dirt on Tech, too, before the Yellow Jackets upended Louisville. That’s all it took for me to start pondering whether the Yellow Jackets can make a run even though they’ve shown no ability to do it all season.
I was believing they could do it by the time I left Josh Pastner’s Tuesday media session. Tech’s relentlessly positive coach can have that effect.
Pastner boasted that the Yellow Jackets (12-13, 6-8 ACC) are a “hard scout” because he switches defensive schemes frequently. Seems that way!
Pastner declared that “everything comes down to guard play” in college basketball. Well, Tech has two good ones in Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe!
Pastner said Tech’s offense has been better since Christmas. It’s true! I had already looked at the numbers.
Pastner talked up his team so well that you almost forget that it hasn’t won consecutive ACC games all season. That is a good reason to believe the Jackets will follow their home victory over Louisville with a flop at Wake Forest on Wednesday night. It’s a cold, hard fact that not even Pastner’s sunny optimism can wash away.
“We are going to stick to the process,” Pastner said. “We’ve just got to get better. If we get better, the results will take care of themselves. We have gotten better. Our team has really improved. We are way better than our record.”
Pastner’s case: Tech would have more victories if Alvarado, the key to the offense, hadn’t gotten hurt in November. Alvarado sat out seven games and was limited in another. The Jackets lost five of the eight.
But Tech is only 7-8 against Division I opponents since Alvarado returned to the lineup. Tech’s best scorer, Devoe, missed two of those games because of a foot injury. After the weekend break, Devoe declared that the foot “feels amazing.”
After the uplifting victory over Louisville, maybe Tech finally can fashion an ACC winning streak.
“When we are all together and we are all joined together and doing what we are supposed to do, I think we are a really good team,” Devoe said.
I get why he believes it. But the Jackets must prove it. I think they should be better. Tech isn’t deep, but there is enough talent to finish above water in the ACC this season.
Devoe ranks seventh in the ACC in scoring and 11th in shooting efficiency. Alvarado is ninth in assists and fifth in steals. James Banks is a good scorer around the basket. Banks and fellow big man Moses Wright deftly hold down the back line on defense.
That’s a good top four for Tech. Yet, even when healthy, the Jackets have been a middling team. They are good on defense, as always with Pastner. That’s why I wasn’t surprised they beat Louisville, which doesn’t always respond well to getting banged around.
Still, Louisville missed 21 of 24 3-point tries, and Tech had to overcome 18 turnovers. Tech scored the upset by mucking things up. To keep winning, the Jackets must find a way to put the ball in the basket more often. There’s an opportunity to do it. Four of their five remaining opponents aren’t good on defense.
That includes Wake Forest. At halftime of the Tech game Wake will honor its 1994-95 team, which won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, and ex-coach Dave Odom. That squad included Tim Duncan, whose selection to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will be announced at the Final Four here in April.
The glory years are long gone for Wake. The current coach, Danny Manning, was a great college player. He’s on his way to a fourth losing season in five as Deacons coach. The exception is when John Collins, now excelling for the Hawks, blossomed as a sophomore.
The Deacons (11-14, 4-11) have improved over the past month. Their athletic ability can make them hard to guard. But they just got handled at Miami, which might finish last in the league. Tech can take Wake.
The Jackets are at Syracuse this weekend. The Orange won here in December as Alvarado sat out. They’ve slipped lately as star forward Elijah Hughes deals with a groin injury. Tech then plays three consecutive home games in which it should be favored (Clemson, Miami and Pittsburgh) before finishing the regular season at Clemson.
The Jackets were 8-10 in the ACC in Pastner’s first season. They were 6-12 in each of the past two. Winning four of the next six games would get them to even in the ACC in Year 4.
“Yes, the winning matters, but if we just get better and keep moving on the right trajectory things will get better,” Pastner said.
I want to believe it. Against Louisville, the Jackets demonstrated they can beat a good team even when not playing their best. We’ll see if that was a one-off or the start of a real run.
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