The Georgia Bulldogs are a bottom-tier SEC team with a new coach, Tom Crean. They came to McCamish Pavilion on Saturday and never trailed the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, who were favored by five points and lost by 11.
Three days after beating a good Arkansas team on its floor, Tech lost ugly to Georgia at home. Tech had 11 straight empty possessions during one stretch of the first half. When the Jackets finally scored again, their fans cheered sarcastically and they trailed 25-11.
It got better for Tech. How could it be any worse? It still wasn’t good enough to beat a Georgia team that’s not nearly as good as those that bested Tech the past three years.
This was a bad loss for the Jackets, who couldn’t afford another one before ACC play (they’d already loss to Gardner Webb). Tech is a good defensive team that can’t score. That’s not going to get it done in the ACC. It’s not even good enough to beat Georgia.
“We have some limitations scoring-wise,” Tech coach Josh Pastner said, which is one way to put it. “It’s just who we’ve been this year.”
It’s not just this year, though. It’s who the Jackets have been for two-plus years with Pastner as coach. You can count on his Jackets laboring to score, following good victories with bad losses and losing to Georgia.
It’s no surprise the Jackets can defend. That’s a trademark for Pastner’s teams, both at Tech and over his seven years at Memphis. But scoring takes more than toughness and Pastner’s favorite buzzword, “energy.”
At some point you need multiple players who can dribble, pass and (especially) shoot. You need a coach who can take whatever offensive talent is on hand and maximize it.
Tech showed little evidence of any of that against Georgia. When the game got tight late, Crean’s team was the one that found ways to generate good shots against a tough defense.
“We hang our hat on the defensive end,” Pastner said. “There’s never been a problem with our motor, or what I like to call ‘competitive excellence.’ We just struggle to score.”
He’s talking about this year’s Tech team. The same was true of his other two squads here. Brian Gregory wasn’t an ACC-caliber coach, but his last Tech team was much better at scoring than any of Pastner’s groups.
Someone asked Pastner to compare this team to his first at Tech, which lost to Georgia before beating North Carolina and going on to finish 8-10 in the ACC.
“That first-year team was older,” he said. “We had a bunch of seniors. This year’s team we’re just really young and on that (first) team, we had a first round-draft pick. This team is a collection of good guys, but I don’t know that we have a kid who is the 20th pick in draft.”
Pastner has a point about the experience. He’s also right about the talent. Josh Okogie isn’t walking through that door.
But this is college basketball, where a lack of talent falls on the head coach. I thought Pastner was a good hire for Tech because he had a strong track record recruiting. He signed lots of good prospects at Memphis (keeping them around was another matter).
That hasn’t happened at Tech. Pastner’s best recruit so far, freshman Michael Devoe, looks promising (he scored a team-high 14 points against Georgia.). But Devoe so far is the only top-100 recruit for Pastner, who is having as much trouble as his predecessors with keeping the best players in the state.
The Jackets have one commitment for 2019, an unheralded junior college player. Scoring help is not on the way, at least not in recruiting.
Maybe Pastner can mold the Jackets into an elite defensive unit, like the 2015-16 team. Then they could get by being below-average offensively. But Tech has some work to do just to get to that level.
Tech’s best offensive player is sophomore point guard Jose Alvarado. He missed 17 of 20 shots against Georgia. Jackets senior Brandon Alston had made 12 of 25 three-point shots before Saturday.He played just 14 minutes against Georgia and took just four shots, making one of two three-point tries.
Tech was 3-for-16 on three-pointers. Pastner said making more 3’s would unlock the offense.
“I believe in this team’s shooting ability, even though we are not shooting well,” Pastner said. “I don’t believe I miscalculated, but maybe I did.”
But, by my calculations, the Jackets are shooting three-pointers at about the same level as usual with Pastner as coach. They are shooting making 29.8 percent on 3’s this season. They shot 32.5 percent in 2015-16 and 31.8 percent last year.
If three-point shooting is the key for Tech, then it is in trouble.
No doubt the Bulldogs play solid defense, which is leftover residue from their last coach, Mark Fox. Georgia’s length especially makes it difficult for opponents to score. Opponents must negotiate a thicket of long arms before getting to the basket, where Nicolas Claxton awaits (he blocked six shots vs. Tech).
Still, it’s not as if the Bulldogs are Virginia. And they are probably even more limited than Tech offensively.
“We are not a great ball-handling, decision-making team,” Crean said. “The shooting is up and down. When we can play with a consistent level of toughness, we can overcome that.”
That might be enough for Georgia to over-achieve in the SEC. It’s hard to imagine the Jackets doing the same in their league. Tech opens league play against Wake Forest in two weeks and then will play 12 straight games in which they’ll be favored to lose, per Pomeroy’s projections.
Hard to argue with that when, as usual with this coach, the Jackets have so much trouble scoring.