The season had ended less than 24 hours earlier, but Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner already had an objective for the 2019-20 season. What the Yellow Jackets need to do, Pastner said, is finish in the top nine of the ACC and avoid playing in the first round of the conference tournament, which Tech has done for each of Pastner’s first three seasons.
“If you’re not playing on Tuesday, you are in the NCAA tournament or you’re right there,” Pastner said Wednesday morning.
Pastner’s third season finished at 14-18, which will make it the ninth consecutive year that the Jackets have not been to the NCAA Tournament. Only four power-conference schools have longer active droughts and one of them, Mississippi State, will be back in this year.
As he looked back at the season in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he offered his critiques of himself and his team and areas that he liked. As usual, he was optimistic and hopeful about the fourth season.
“I don’t think we’re that far off,” Pastner said about making the tournament. “I really don’t believe we are.”
Even in a sub-.500 season, there were positives. Center James Banks steadily developed, finished the regular season as the ACC blocks leader and was a worthy selection to the ACC all-defensive team. Point guard Jose Alvarado played his way out of a deep slump to show his most productive form of his career in the final six games of the regular season. Freshman forwards Khalid Moore and Kristian Sjolund developed into contributors.
“We got better as the season went on,” he said.
Forward Moses Wright was the most improved player on the team. In his first 25 games, Wright shot 40 percent from the field and averaged .30 points per minute. In the final five, as his shot selection improved and skill work began to bear fruit, his field-goal percentage shot up to 62 percent and he scored .52 points per minute. For context, guard Josh Okogie averaged .50 points per minute last season. Wright has made a considerable jump from high school, when he only had one other power-conference scholarship offer besides Tech.
“He’s just been at a very high level,” Pastner said.
The Jackets defended well, as they have throughout Pastner’s tenure. As of Tuesday, they ranked 35th nationally in defensive efficiency and 13th in 3-point field-goal defense (KenPom). Tech’s 1-3-1 zone continued to give teams trouble, particularly with the effort that the Jackets gave. Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said after his team beat Tech in February at McCamish Pavilion that the Jackets had “probably the best matchup zone scheme I’ve seen in my coaching career.”
“I’m really, really proud of our defense,” Pastner said.
They also won three road games, at Arkansas, Syracuse and N.C. State. While losing Josh Okogie, Ben Lammers and Tadric Jackson, the Jackets maintained the same league record (6-12), which this year was good for 10th (last year it was 13th).
The 3-point shooting, which Pastner had proclaimed would be significantly better, declined slightly, from 32 percent to 31 percent, although guard Michael Devoe shot 39 percent for the season and 44 percent in conference play. The shooting did improve at the tail end of the season, which Pastner attributed to a change in the structure of shooting drills in practice and the decision to play with a smaller lineup.
“I’m really proud of our defense, but we just had stretches there in some games we lost, we just couldn’t score,” Pastner said.
Pastner lamented his decision not to commit to a playing rotation earlier in the season, which he attributed to so many players being similarly capable.
“I should have made the decision to say, ‘We’re just going to keep with this rotation’ and let it be that and grow through it,” he said. “But because we didn’t have a lot of separation, we were playing 10 or 11 guys at times, and I didn’t think it was effective.”
Pastner already knows that he wants to have a rotation in place by the season opener next year, which will be against an ACC opponent as part of the rollout of the ACC Network and the new 20-game league schedule.
He also wished he had gotten more out of guard Shembari Phillips. The transfer from Tennessee, whom Pastner hoped could soften some of the blow of Okogie’s departure for the NBA, started the first six games, scoring a total of 28 points, and fell out of the rotation. He played only 61 minutes in ACC play.
“That falls on me, that doesn’t fall on him,” Pastner said. “I wish I got him going somehow.”
Pastner said that he thought Tech could have won three or four more games, specifically noting non-conference losses to Northwestern and St. John’s. The Jackets also lost two ACC games in which they kept their opponent under 60 points – Virginia Tech and Florida State, both bound for the NCAA tournament.
Such defensive prowess is part of what leads Pastner to be so hopeful about next season.
“We’ve proven through the three years we’re a very good defensive team,” he said, “and we’ve proven through the years we’re going to have high assists to made field goals. If we can just make some 3’s, be in the upper tier of making 3’s, and do a better job of taking care of the ball, I’m telling you, we’re getting close to not playing on Tuesday (in the first round of the ACC tournament).”
It seems attainable. The Jackets turned the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions (KenPom), which was 313th in Division I as of Wednesday. They were also 328th in 3-point field-goal percentage. If the Jackets’ defense continues at its standard, it would stand to reason that Alvarado and Curtis Haywood, in particular, will be better from 3-point range, and that Tech will be better with the ball, particularly with Banks in his second season playing the high post and Alvarado going into his third season as the full-time point guard.
Tech also will have guard Jordan Usher, a transfer from USC who can start play at the end of the fall semester.
Either through high-school recruiting or the transfer market, Pastner will try to secure a scoring guard and a post player this spring. On Tuesday, Tre Mitchell, a center from Pittsburgh rated the No. 81 prospect in the 2019 class (247Sports Composite), put Tech in his final six. As teams’ seasons come to an end, the transfer portal likely will be filling with possibilities.
“We have at least two spots, and we’re going to go out and recruit and we’re going to find some guys,” Pastner said.
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