Josh Pastner identifies Georgia Tech’s ‘next step’

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner voices his disappointment in the Jackets' loss to Pitt while looking ahead to rematch with No. 5 Louisville. (Courtesy of Georgia Tech Athletics)

It’s not the sort of accomplishment that would get a banner raised in McCamish Pavilion — hopefully not, at any rate — but it’s one that coach Josh Pastner has had in his sights since the end of last season.

Pastner wants the Yellow Jackets to finish in the top nine in the ACC standings and to avoid first-round play on the Tuesday of the conference tournament. Since the league expanded to 15 teams before the 2013-14 season, the Jackets have played in the opening round five of six times, which in normal circumstances has been the lot of the teams finishing in the bottom six.

The one time that the Jackets did not was when Louisville sat out of the tournament with a self-imposed postseason ban (2016), which enabled Tech to miss the first round, as only the bottom four teams played. Had Louisville played, the Jackets would have played on Tuesday.

“I’ve said this many times — we’ve got to get off of Tuesday,” Pastner said Monday in advance of the Jackets’ Wednesday night home game against No. 5 Louisville. “I think that’s our next step. Yes, trust me, I want to play in the NCAA tournament. It’s a drive, it’s a goal. Who doesn’t want to turn the program back to the NCAA tournament? But I don’t think we can even get to that point until we’ve got to make sure that we finish in a way that we’re not playing on a Tuesday.”

Tech is 11-13 overall and 5-8 in league play, good for a three-way tie for 10th. The Jackets are one game behind Pittsburgh and Boston College, at 6-7, with seven games to play in the regular season.

A push for a top-nine finish is perhaps not the rousing charge that Tech fans would hope to hear from Pastner near the end of his fourth season. But, that’s where their team stands, a team continuing to push upward in a highly competitive league.

The Jackets' loss at Pitt on Saturday, induced by a whopping 22 turnovers, further secured the likelihood that the team's only path to the NCAA tournament is through winning the conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., in the second week of March.

At 11-13, it left them on precarious ground, as the selection committee has not often smiled upon teams with 14 losses, which would be Tech’s minimum if it were to lose in the ACC tournament. Teams with 14 losses have received at-large bids only 14 times, and only three have made it with 15 losses.

Tech last played in the tournament in 2010. Among power-conference teams, only Rutgers (1991), Washington State (2008) and Boston College (2009) have gone longer without playing in the tournament, and it appears that the Scarlet Knights will end their drought this season.

With arguably the strongest roster that Pastner has fielded facing a league that is probably the weakest it has been in his four seasons, this hasn’t been the season that had been anticipated. Since the end of last season, Pastner had stated his intent to lead the Jackets to the tournament. Injuries, principally to point guard Jose Alvarado, have been an obstacle.

“I really had high expectations going in,” forward Moses Wright said. “Right now, I feel like our record doesn’t reflect who we really are. It’s just hard because, when they look at Georgia Tech, they’re going to look at our record and not really look and see how we’ve been playing, the close games we’ve had and everything.”

Wright said that he would “most definitely” be excited about an NIT berth, which itself would take some work for the Jackets to be considered.

“But we’re going to take it one step at a time, hopefully win the ACC tournament, get that (automatic berth) in,” he said.

For better or worse, finishing in the top nine in the league standings would be an accomplishment for the Jackets, particularly if they could do so by finishing at .500.

The last time Tech finished better than 10th was in 2013, when there were only 12 teams in the league and the Jackets finished ninth at 6-12.

Also, the Jackets have finished with a losing record in league play for each of the past 12 seasons. It is the longest active streak of sub-.500 seasons in the ACC.

Pastner has continually asserted that, while the record doesn’t indicate it, Tech has improved this season, but is still learning how to finish games. In ACC play, the Jackets are 2-6 in games decided by single digits. In three of the losses, Tech had possessions with fewer than three minutes remaining to tie or take the lead but did not capitalize and went on to lose.

“We’ve had some opportunities to win games we just did not take advantage of,” Pastner said. “Yes, if we learned how to finish, our record would be different. I can just tell you that we are better.”

Wednesday’s game against the Cardinals will be their most high-profile matchup of the final seven regular-season games. Louisville (21-3, 12-1) has won its past 10 games and is alone in first place in the ACC. A win over Louisville would easily be the most noteworthy win of the season and in Pastner’s top five at Tech.

The Jackets nearly pulled off the upset of the Cardinals at the KFC Yum Center on Jan. 22. Guard Michael Devoe took a 3-pointer for the lead with 10 seconds left but was off the mark. The Jackets may have to play without forward Evan Cole, who has missed the past two games with a sprained ankle.

Tech's remaining seven games (opponent's record)
Feb. 12, vs. Louisville (21-3, 12-1 ACC)
Feb. 19, at Wake Forest (10-13, 3-10)
Feb. 22, at Syracuse (14-9, 7-5)
Feb. 25, vs. Clemson (11-12, 5-8)
Feb. 29, vs. Miami (11-12, 3-10)
March 4, Pitt (15-9, 6-7)
March 6, at Clemson (11-12, 5-8)