If you hadn’t known that Georgia Tech was picked to finish next-to-last in a 15-team league, you’d never know it now. Starting with New Year’s Eve, the Yellow Jackets have played teams ranked ninth, eighth, ninth, 16th, sixth and 14th in the Associated Press poll and gone .500 against them. They’re 5-4 in a conference that could send 10 or 11 teams to the NCAA tournament, and if there are nine or 10 ACC teams better than this, I’ll eat Skeeter Francis’ hat.
“Georgia Tech is a very good team,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “I believe they’re going to be an NCAA tournament team.”
Brey’s teams have advanced to the Elite Eight the past two seasons, losing to bluebloods Kentucky and North Carolina. This is another in the series of solid Fighting Irish teams, but it couldn’t beat Tech here Saturday. What was once a massive shock — Tech toppling an opponent of stature — has become the new normal. It’s amazing if you’re going by preseason expectations. It’s no longer amazing if you’re actually watching.
Tech shaded Notre Dame 62-60 on a beat-the-clock runout basket by Josh Okogie after a defensive rebound and halfcourt pass by Tadric Jackson. “They deserved it today,” Brey said. “They played better longer.”
This was no fluke. This was a big-time game matching two good-looking teams, and if I told you I expected to be typing such a sentence in any Georgia Tech season before 2019, I’d be lying. But Josh Pastner has worked such wonders in 10 months that they’ve stopped being wonders.
“We had to go to overtime to beat (Division II) Shorter in our first game,” Pastner said. “We still have a long way to go. We are not out of the woods. But we have become a good team.”
If you were casting eyes on Pastner’s team for the first time Saturday, you saw a team with a clear idea of what it needed to do and how to do it. You saw a team that passed well — 18 assists on 26 baskets — and got great looks from its set offense against a zone defense, which not every team can do. You saw a team that knocked the usually precise Irish off-stride enough that Steve Vasturia, a three-year starter averaging 14.9 points, made one basket in 39 minutes.
You saw a team representing a program that hasn’t played a game of real consequence since 2010 outflank and outfight an opponent steeled by tournament pressure. Brey is a really good coach, but he’s 0-1 against Pastner in Year 1 of what was advertised as a fixer-upper job. Which tells us that Pastner, who needed a fresh start after diminishing returns at Memphis, is looking like the greatest hire since Tom Butters convinced the Army coach to move to Durham, N.C.
Brey: “Josh has done a fabulous job. We really couldn’t get anything around the basket because of (Ben) Lammers and (Quinton) Stephens and their shot-blocking. And all the guards he played could really play defense.”
Not that Tech played many guards. Of the game’s 200 minutes, six Jackets worked 199 of them. Lammers, the junior center, never sat. Jackson, who didn’t start, scored 25 points in 26 minutes. Freshman Josh Okogie, who had 28 points against North Carolina on Dec. 31 and 35 against Florida State on Wednesday, had only eight Saturday and missed two free throws in a tie game with 35 seconds remaining.
The Jackets defended Notre Dame’s final possession expertly, forcing point guard Matt Farrell to try a runner. (“It wasn’t a great shot,” Brey said.) Jackson rebounded with seven seconds remaining and looked long.
Jackson: “I saw Josh Okogie sprinting so hard I just had to give him the ball.”
Pastner: “Josh looked like Usain Bolt.”
Jackson: “I couldn’t even see his legs he was running so fast.”
Gathering in Jackson’s pass and swooping from the right side, Okogie dropped the ball through the basket just before the red backboard light flashed. A tremendous play decided a tremendous game. And now what?
The Jackets are past the murderer’s row part of their schedule. They have only one ranked opponent — Notre Dame in South Bend — remaining. They entered Saturday’s game with an RPI of 71, still low for Dance consideration, but it took a 23-rung bounce after the Florida State game and will get another now.
Pastner: “If the tournament’s today, we’re in. There’s no question about it. We deserve to be in the NCAA tournament. We’ve got great wins. But the selection show isn’t until mid-March — unless you pull the fire alarm on the season.”
We’ve stopped noticing the stuff the Jackets can’t do and marveling at what they can. “Some of our deficiencies can be covered by how hard we play,” Pastner said, but effort tends to have its biggest effect at the defensive end. Offense requires skill, and guess what? These guys have a bit of that, too.
It’s a honed skill, granted. “We practice cutting and ball movement every day,” Pastner said, and the fruits of that labor are obvious.
Jackson: “We match up bad (meaning good) with other teams with the way we cut.”
As far as Tech has come, Pastner still lives in fear. “We have a sign in our dressing room: ‘EPIP’ – every possession is precious,” he said. “We are a possession-by-possession team. If we don’t play with the same execution and effort, we don’t have a shot. I told them: ‘We are who we are. Here’s our limitations. Here’s the blueprint.’”
And here’s his team. It’s a good team. It’s not going away anytime soon. Hey, it just got here.