Jan. 09, 2019 Atlanta: Georgia Tech defenders Brandon Alston and James Banks III double team Virginia Tech forward Kerry Blackshear III during the second half in a NCAA basketball at McCamish Pavilion on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Georgia Tech in need of ‘road warrior mentality’

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner doesn’t miss an opportunity to shower the Tech student body and fan base for their enthusiastic support at McCamish Pavilion. If he wants it, here’s evidence of the edge they apparently provide for the Yellow Jackets.

In Pastner’s first two seasons, Tech was 12-6 at home in ACC play and 2-16 on the road, a difference of 10 games. Over that span, it was the second widest disparity in the conference, smaller only than Florida State at 11 games. The average difference was 5.7 games.

The larger point, though, particularly as it concerns the Jackets’ immediate future, is that Tech largely has performed poorly away from McCamish Pavilion during Pastner’s two-plus seasons. The topic is front of mind as the Jackets play at Syracuse on Saturday and then travel up I-85 to play at Clemson on Wednesday.

“Going into this year, we’ve talked about it, that our next step for our program is to win road games,” Pastner said Friday.

It is perhaps a reflection of where the Jackets stand in the conference, a team that has not made the NCAA tournament since 2010. Only Boston College and Pitt (both 1-17) did worse in ACC road games in the past two years. The team fourth from the bottom is Wake Forest (4-14), and one could reasonably contend that those are the four weakest teams in the ACC.

That said, Tech has won a handful of significant games away from McCamish, such as at VCU in December 2016, at Ole Miss in the NIT in March 2017 and then at Arkansas earlier this season. But that also reflects again where the Jackets are as a road team, that its true road wins in the past three seasons can be counted on one hand.

“I just think it’s hard to win on the road,” Pastner said.

It has proved especially true in league play for the Jackets. The Jackets have won as many road games against SEC teams (Ole Miss and Arkansas) as they have against teams in their own conference. In Pastner’s first two seasons, the Jackets beat six ACC teams that went on to make the NCAA tournament (and very nearly beat No. 9 Virginia Tech at McCamish on Wednesday), but the only conference opponents that Tech managed to defeat on the road in the past two years (N.C. State in 2017 and Pittsburgh last season) were apparently so beatable that they both fired their coaches.

Further, the Jackets have not only lost on the road, but have often been run over. Syracuse gave Pastner arguably his most thorough beating in his Tech tenure, a 90-61 thrashing in March 2016. Last year, even as the Jackets were 5-4 at home in league play, five of their eight ACC road losses were by double digits.

Pastner’s answer is better defense.

“To win on the road in true road environments, you have to be a road warrior,” Pastner said. “And a road-warrior mentality has got to be all through defense.”

While conventional wisdom would suggest that offensive play would suffer more on the road, the numbers seem to back up Pastner. Last season, of Tech’s 16 most efficient games on offense (KenPom) in the 32-game schedule, seven were on the road. On the other hand, three-quarters of the Jackets’ better defensive games were played at McCamish. Of their 16 most efficient games on defense, two were true road games and two were neutral-site games.

For Tech, playing good defense often starts with avoiding turnovers and making baskets to avoid getting scored on in transition.

“That 2-3 zone (of Syracuse), it bothers a lot of people, but you’ve got to have good ball movement, and then we’ve got to get score in transition,” guard Brandon Alston said. “We’ve been doing a better job of looking for that. We’ve got to really keep that up and limit the transition opportunities. They’re a good transition team.”

Saturday, the Jackets will have to find answers for point guard Tyus Battle (17.5 points per game) and forward Elijah Hughes (15.2 points per game). They’ll also need to be more mindful of keeping Syracuse off the offensive glass, a problem area in recent games for the Jackets.

Tech will have at least a little bit of fan support at the Carrier Dome to counter the 20,000-plus there cheering for the Orange. Point guard Jose Alvarado, from Brooklyn, N.Y., said he’ll have about 20 family members at the game. For many, it will be their first time seeing him play in college.

“I think everybody in this building knows that family is everything for me, so I’m just glad to be on their side,” he said. “Hopefully, we get a win, and it’ll be more exciting.”

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