Setting the stage as Georgia Tech begins bulk of ACC schedule

As his point guard healed his sprained ankle and his team’s non-conference losses mounted, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner pointed to the final day of 2019 as a beginning. While he had bulked up the non-conference schedule to make an impression on the NCAA tournament selection committee, Pastner said that the team would ultimately judged by its play in the ACC schedule.

As his team prepared for a Wednesday road game at No. 18 Florida State to start the bulk of the league schedule, Pastner affirmed that position, saying that getting Tech back into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010 was “the ultimate goal.” Among power conference schools, only Rutgers (1991), Washington State (2008) and Boston College (2009) have had longer droughts.

“We’ve got 18 opportunities in ACC play to do that in the regular season,” Pastner said Sunday. “You’ve got to make the move now, and a lot of it’s going to be determined on how you finish in the ACC, what you do in the ACC.”

With Jose Alvarado having returned for the team's three games in Hawaii, in which the Jackets beat Boise State (NET ranking going into Monday's games: 107) and Hawaii (138) while losing to Houston (40), Tech stood at No. 112 with a 6-6 record.

The Jackets’ defense continued to be strong, if foul-prone, as Boise State and Hawaii played two of their poorest offensive games of their seasons against the Jackets. On offense, Tech’s shooting improved (inside the 3-point arc, at least), as did its accuracy from the free-throw line (75% after going to Hawaii at 58 percent).

Forward Moses Wright is playing perhaps at the highest level of his career. He averaged 17.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in the three games in Hawaii, making 64 percent of his shots with just four turnovers in 98 minutes. He was named ACC player of the week for his efforts, his first such honor.

“There’s no denying that Moses has improved,” Pastner said. “He’s just gotten better.”

However, center James Banks remained in a funk, the Jackets’ 3-point shooting woes continued (21% in the three games, below the pre-Hawaii rate of 29%) and the assist/turnover ratio was 21/43, dropping Tech to 330th out of 350 Division I teams.

“It’s not disappointment, it’s frustration,” Pastner said of Banks. “Because I know how good he is and how good he can be and how much our team needs him.”

Perhaps in light of Tech’s status, Pastner said he was moving from a results-driven approach with his team.

“Within our team, it’s got to be process-oriented, because we’ve just got to be better,” Pastner said.

Pastner expected for Alvarado (who missed Sunday’s practice with an illness, but was expected to play) to make an impact on the Jackets at both ends of the floor. He sat out seven games with a severe ankle sprain and was limited in an eighth, and Tech was 3-5 in those games.

“You take a quarterback off of someone’s team, whether it’s football or basketball, it makes it awfully hard, and that’s what happened with us,” Pastner said.

And Pastner was hopeful for Banks to find the form that he showed earlier in the season, when he collected three double-doubles in the Jackets’ first five games. Pastner said he has encouraged Banks by telling him that he is down to his final chapter in his college career and has control over how he writes it.

“Because, being in the ACC, you’re going to have incredible opportunities to make a difference,” Pastner said. “And we need you to make a difference if we want to do what we want to do.”

For the Jackets to have a chance at the tournament, they probably don’t want to do any worse than 11-7 over their final 18 league games, which would put them at 17-13 going into the ACC tournament (not counting a Jan. 28 game against Division II Morehouse). In tournament history, the selection committee has awarded 14 at-large bids to 14-loss teams. One 15-loss team has snuck into the field each of the past three years.

The ACC doesn't appear as top-heavy as last season, when three league teams finished in the top five in RPI — only Duke was in the top five as of Monday. Still, finishing league play at 12-8 (the Jackets have already split their first two ACC games, against N.C. State and Syracuse) is a tall order. The last time Tech finished above .500 in league play was 2004, when the Jackets reached the national championship game.

Nevertheless, that’ll be the Jackets’ task.