Georgia Tech is OK; that may be enough to end tourney drought this year

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner bangs on the scorers table trying to get his team's attention during a 78-74 loss to Notre Dame in a NCAA college basketball game on Wednesday, January 15, 2020, in Atlanta.    Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner bangs on the scorers table trying to get his team's attention during a 78-74 loss to Notre Dame in a NCAA college basketball game on Wednesday, January 15, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton

There’s a decent chance Georgia Tech can end the most puzzling NCAA tournament drought in the nation. Coach Josh Pastner’s Yellow Jackets labor to score, like always, but points are scarce across college basketball. Tech is mediocre, but that might be good enough in a down season for the ACC.

I expected Tech to maintain its momentum Wednesday at McCamish Pavilion. The Jackets had won two of their past three to get to 3-3 in the ACC. Notre Dame had lost two consecutive to fall to 1-4. A victory would get the Jackets above water in the ACC, which they hadn’t done this late since they were 5-4 in 2016-17.

They couldn’t do it. Tech had one of its better scoring games, but gave away too many possessions with sloppy turnovers. Notre Dame made shots when it mattered most, which wasn’t a surprise. The Fighting Irish also collected the important rebounds even when using a small lineup, which shouldn’t happen.

“Coach (Mike) Brey is one of the best coaches in all of college basketball,” Pastner said. “They’re a good team.”

Pastner is right about Notre Dame’s Brey. He has a long track record of winning with teams that are sharp on offense. But the Irish are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season after making it in seven of eight years from 2010-17. Tech should beat them at home.

The Jackets haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2010. That year, coach Paul Hewitt’s team finished 7-9 in the league then got hot in the conference tourney. Tech has a chance to make a similar surge this season.

After Wednesday's games the Jackets rank No. 93 in the NET ratings, the primary metric used by the selection committee. There are 12 higher-ranked teams remaining on Tech's schedule. But only three of those opponents are in the top 50: Louisville (No. 14), Virginia Tech (No. 34) and N.C. State (No. 45).

Virginia, the defending national champion, carries a three-game losing streak to McCamish on Saturday. It’s coach Tony Bennett’s worst-ever offensive team. The Jackets play host to N.C. State next weekend. Tech opened the season with a victory at N.C. State.

In between, the Jackets play at Louisville. They’ve lost eight in a row to the Cardinals. But Louisville can be bothered by a rugged defensive team like Tech.

Tech’s remaining schedule is just tough enough to offer chances for good victories, but not so tough that the Jackets will be overwhelmed. Seven of the 13 remaining games are at home. Two of the road games are at Wake Forest and Pittsburgh, who are a combined 3-9 in the ACC.

Tech likely would be in position for an NCAA bid if it finishes 10-10 in the league and (finally) wins a game in the tournament. The ACC has received at least six bids in every season since the league expanded to 15 teams in 2013-14. That season, N.C. State made it that season after finishing 9-9 in the league and winning twice in the ACC tourney.

Tech’s manageable schedule is one good reason to believe it can do something similar. Point guard Jose Alvarado is another. He’s nearly a month into his return from a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for seven games and limited him during the loss at Georgia on Nov. 20. No other Tech player has a bigger impact on its offense.

The Jackets have scored about one point per possession in games Alvarado plays, according to Ken Pomeroy’s opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics. That’s good enough for a team that holds opponents to about 0.91 adjusted points per possession. Tech offense is about 20 percent less efficient when Alvarado is out. Hardly any defense can overcome that.

Alvarado is a good scorer and gets the ball to teammates in good spots. The obvious drawback to that is when Alvarado doesn’t play well, the offense stalls. That happened for stretches of the Notre Dame game.

Alvarado blamed himself for the loss. That’s too harsh. It’s not his fault that Tech’s offense relies so heavily on him. Pastner’s Tech teams have never scored enough. That’s why they’ve been bottom-tier in the ACC despite playing good defense, which is another Pastner trademark.

With Alvarado healthy, the Jackets have a chance to finish strong and make the NCAA tourney. That’s assuming they are eligible. Tech is running out the clock on its postseason ban. The Jackets are eligible as their appeal is pending.

Pastner's failure to report the shenanigans of former friend Ron Bell set in motion the events that led to impermissible-benefits violations that snared his program. Tech stuck by Pastner, anyway. It was a lifeline for a coach who was 20-34 in the ACC over three seasons with no victories in the league tournament.

Pastner could help help the Jackets move past the sting out of those violations by leading them to this NCAA tournament. This is a year when being a bit above average should be enough to do it.