He hopped up and down. He slammed the scorer’s table (at least three times). He threw his fists (at least five times). After seeing mistakes or lack of effort on the floor, he made knee-jerk substitutions (many times).
When Georgia Tech’s loss to 76-68 loss at No. 22 Virginia Tech on Wednesday night was complete, coach Josh Pastner remarked that his knee hurt from stomping the floor.
The Yellow Jackets lost for the sixth consecutive time Wednesday and will try again to end their slide Saturday at home against No. 17 Florida State. (The Seminoles will be the fifth AP Top 25 team the Jackets will have faced in the past seven games.)
Watching Pastner and the Tech bench from up close, Pastner’s outsized gestures are what are most easily noticed, particularly the 1-2 punches he throws in the air in frustration, a reflection of the energy he pours into games, possession by possession.
“It’s just straight air,” Pastner said Friday. “Sometimes people throw things. I’m just punching air.”
But other less obvious gestures and comments provided a glimpse into where the Jackets are as they try to correct course.
The weight of a slump
With a little more than 12 minutes to play in the first half and Virginia Tech up 15-7, Jackets forward Moses Wright had the ball in the high post and found guard Jose Alvarado outside the 3-point arc, slightly to the left wing.
Alvarado had all the time he needed to set and launch – four Hokies players had at least one foot in the lane, converged on Wright, and the fifth was on the opposite wing.
Alvarado set his feet, rose up, released, held his follow-through and … the ball bounced high off the back rim. Alvarado’s scoring slump continued.
Watching from the sideline, Pastner’s shoulders literally sagged. Alvarado was caught in a horrendous slump, which continued through Wednesday night. In Tech’s past six games – the duration of the losing streak – Alvarado is 10-for-59 from the field and 3-for-26 from 3-point range.
Pastner described Alvarado as the team’s engine after the game and extolled his effort. But the impact of his slump is undeniable, as his coach’s slumped body language suggested.
“Jose’s got to make a couple 3’s for us,” Pastner said. “We can sit here and talk about anything else, (but) Jose’s got to make some 3’s for us.”
Defending the 3
An admonition that Pastner yelled throughout the night as his team retreated to defense – Don’t get sucked in. Virginia Tech forward Kerry Blackshear was drawing in defenders into the high and low post, only to quickly find shooters spotted up along the 3-point arc. Pastner stomped his foot when a quick pass out of the low post from Blackshear found Ahmed Hill for a 3-pointer at the 4:44 mark of the first half, one of Blackshear’s eight assists, six of them for 3-pointers. The Hokies torched the Jackets with 13 3-pointers on 30 attempts.
Pastner’s decision to limit 6-foot-9 forward Abdoulaye Gueye’s minutes impaired the Jackets’ ability to challenge shots after they had been drawn in to defend Blackshear. Pastner had been pairing Gueye with center James Banks, as Gueye has recently been the Jackets’ most effective scorer, but having two post players on the floor together bogged down Georgia Tech’s Princeton-style offense.
Gueye’s length on the wing of the 1-3-1 zone has helped Tech become one of the best defenders of the 3-point shot in the country, but came at a cost to the flow of the offense – even while he had scored in double figures in seven of the eight games before Wednesday.
“Some of those 3’s you’re talking about probably don’t happen if he’s in,” Pastner said. “We might not score as much, though.”
With Alvarado and guard Curtis Haywood (1-for-29 from 3 in the seven games before Virginia Tech) both struggling to score, Pastner has turned to freshman forward Kristian Sjolund in the past two games. Used sparingly up to that point, Sjolund has answered, tossing in in 11 points in 26 minutes against the Hokies, including three 3-pointers. One of the few instances where Pastner responded visibly to a Jackets basket was a fist pump after a Sjolund 3-pointer late in the first half that cut the lead to 27-24.
But it was clear that, unsurprisingly, Sjolund has a lot to learn. When he came off the floor for timeouts, Pastner and assistant coach Eric Reveno sought him out to offer instruction and reminders. And the most anger that Pastner showed in the game was when Sjolund took a dribble handoff from guard Michael Devoe at the six-minute mark of the second half with Georgia Tech down 58-51. Sjolund didn’t take the handoff cleanly and lost his dribble, a turnover that turned into an and-one layup when Banks fouled Hokies’ guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker on the shot.
Pastner was so aggravated that he chewed Sjolund out after pulling him out of the game and later walked down to the end of the bench to continue venting. As he lacked proficiency with ball screens, Sjolund was under instructions not to receive any.
“I was very frustrated with him for doing that,” Pastner said. “That’s not listening.”
It’s where Tech is, in no small part because of the team’s scoring woes. Sjolund was a candidate to redshirt at the start of the season, but with little game experience, is now being called on to supply offense off the bench.
“He’s going to be really good,” Pastner said. “Really good. But he’s got to grow up quicker on executing what I’m telling him to execute and follow exact instructions.”
Perhaps 30 minutes after the game ended, Williams sought out Pastner in the Georgia Tech locker room, where the two coaches and longtime friends spoke for several minutes, with Williams doing most of the talking. It was a pep talk. Pastner said later that Williams told him how difficult it is to prepare for Georgia Tech because of the unconventionality of the Jackets’ offense and defense.
“And he said you can keep getting better, but the wins maybe don’t show up,” Pastner said. “He goes, ‘You’ve just got to stay the course on it.’”
It was perhaps not the thing he wanted to hear most at the end of the night, but perhaps not the worst thing, either.
“No one’s here for moral victories,” Pastner said, “but I do believe in our course of action.”
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