Georgia Tech lost Saturday to Louisville, which was predictable. The Yellow Jackets were without valuable point guard Jose Alvarado, key forward Abdoulaye Gueye and sixth man Brandon Alston, out because of, respectively, a groin injury, an unspecified medical condition and a personal matter.
But the manner in which the Jackets were overrun by the Cardinals at McCamish Pavilion in a 79-51 defeat provided the first glimpse at the bumpy road that Tech could be traveling for the duration of the aforementioned trio’s absence. It was Gueye and Alston’s second consecutive game missed and the first for Alvarado.
“We really struggled scoring,” coach Josh Pastner said. “This obviously wasn’t the first time this happened to us this year. Just, we really struggled scoring.”
In the first half, when the game was decided, Tech (10-8, 2-3 ACC) had difficulty creating open shots and was reduced to a series of attempts that were either forced or challenged. The Jackets could have used Alvarado, their leading scorer and primary ballhandler, to hit shots, lead the break and set up teammates for open looks. That much was clear in the way that the Jackets had trouble moving the ball effectively and taking smart shots in the first half, not getting into double digits until their 28th possession, by which point Louisville had scored 39 points.
“His loss was hard for us from both ends of the floor,” Pastner said. “He’s our best guy to be able to create. Mike (Devoe) plays better when he’s next to him and just his energy. Early in the game, when you’re just stuck or you need a loose ball, how many times has he come up with things for us. He embodies who we are.”
The scoring punch that Alston (9.6 points per game) can provide was likewise missed in a game in which the Jackets didn’t score their first 3-pointer until the sixth minute of the second half, at which point they’d missed their first six.
Tech functioned better on offense in the second half, as the Jackets moved without the ball better and shot 50 percent from the field and scored 35 points after managing just 16 in the first half, the fewest that Tech has scored in a half this season. An optimist would take hope in the performance after halftime. A cynic would suggest that Louisville was not as interested in defending after taking a 27-point halftime lead.
“We settled down (in the second half),” Pastner said. “Just that first half, like Clemson, we got punched and we fight and crawl back. We just dig ourselves a little bit of a hole. We need to get healthy, but until then, guys have got to hold the fort down till we get to that point.”
Forward James Banks led the Jackets with a career-high 24 points, 15 of them in the second half. Devoe was next with eight points.
“Our post guys didn’t do a very good job with him,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “Give him credit, he sealed really deep.”
On defense, the Jackets missed Gueye, a long defender who can challenge shots in the post and the perimeter and goes hard to the glass. Without Gueye, Louisville had plenty of success scoring all over the floor and off offensive rebounds.
Further, not having Gueye has forced Pastner to scuttle the strategy that he had settled on on offense, playing Banks and Gueye together.
“Jose’s our best breakdown guy and our next best way to score is to try to play big – ‘A.D.’ (Gueye) and James together and punch it inside, but when those two guys aren’t on the floor, it makes it hard,” Pastner said.
Together, Alvarado, Gueye and Alston average a total of 28.8 points out of the 70.6 that the Jackets averaged before Saturday’s game. They had played a third of Tech’s minutes prior to Saturday.
Banks said he wasn’t making excuses, but observed that “the chemistry and the synergy that we’ve been having in earlier games is being disrupted when it gets to knowing guys, where guys are going to be, what they like doing, things of that nature.”
Tech’s 28-point margin of defeat was the widest in a home loss in Pastner’s tenure, according to sports-reference.com. Louisville (13-5, 3-1) shot 47 percent from the field. The Cardinals were led by forward Jordan Nwora, who dropped 25 on the Jackets, 21 in the first half.
Louisville led 16-4 and 31-6 before going into halftime ahead 43-16. It was similar to the Jackets’ loss to Clemson on Wednesday, when they fell behind 20-2 on the way to a 72-60 defeat. It was only a week ago that the Jackets were celebrating their road win over Syracuse before Gueye and Alston were lost, followed by Alvarado’s injury.
“This was just a tough week for us,” Pastner said.
Tech plays Notre Dame at home Tuesday, followed by a visit to No. 1 Duke on Saturday, a home game against No. 13 North Carolina the following Tuesday and then a trip to No. 11 Florida State on Feb. 2.
The forecast for all three players is uncertain. Pastner has declined to provide a possible return date for Alvarado, noting that groin-muscle injuries can be tricky and sometimes take a long time to heal. He has been vague on the nature of Gueye’s injury – it was uncovered by testing that he underwent after suffering muscle cramps in consecutive games, and the team medical staff has since ruled him out of practice and games – and said that it could be season-ending. Pastner said that Alston is considered day-to-day. He played against Syracuse on Jan. 12, but was not with the team for the past two games and is not practicing, either.
All but three of Saturday’s 200 minutes were used by players who were not with the team prior to last season, including 139 by freshmen and sophomores.
“So it’s just these are big games that you’re asking for guys to really contribute at a high level for us,” Pastner said. “Just the more maturation and more growth (we have), we’ll be better as we continue to try to get old and stay old.”