Georgia Tech’s season has hit a grim stretch. The Yellow Jackets have lost five in a row and it’s no stretch to think it could extend at least two more games, starting with Wednesday night’s game at No. 22 Virginia Tech. Two of Tech’s starting guards, sophomores Jose Alvarado and Curtis Haywood, are trapped in dreadful slumps. In the wake of that and Georgia receiving a commitment on Monday from five-star prospect Anthony Edwards from Holy Spirit High, coach Josh Pastner found himself having to urge calm and explaining the many methods he and his staff are employing to fix the problem.
There were at least two reasons, he said.
“Winning is obviously one and two, I get it,” he said. “People enjoy the ball being put in the basket scoring-wise.”
But all is not entirely lost for the Yellow Jackets. (At least not yet) Freshman guard Michael Devoe and junior center James Banks have been making strides of late and particularly in Tech’s loss at Notre Dame on Sunday.
“Those two guys for Josh have such a bright future,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Monday.
In South Bend, Ind., Devoe hit career highs for points (18), 3-pointers (four) and rebounds (eight) while matching his career best for assists (six) and blocks (two).
“It was just a great, great shooting night for me,” Devoe told the AJC. “I mean, I worked too hard for it. It’s finally starting to fall now.”
Devoe shot 26.7 percent from 3-point range in Tech’s non-conference games, but has been shooting 45.9 percent in Tech’s 11 ACC games. Devoe said that, besides the work that he’s put in, he’s feeling more comfortable after sitting out six weeks in the preseason with a toe injury and also finding the range on the college 3-pointer (20 feet, 9 inches; compared to the 19’9” distance in high school). He has five double-figuring scoring games in Tech’s past seven.
“I think Devoe is just one of the gifted young guards in our league,” Brey said. “I thought he’d almost single-handedly beat us (Sunday) night because we couldn’t do much with him until a little bit in the second half. But he’s big, he’s long, he shoots it, he’s got good strength already.”
While bound to experience some inconsistency as a freshman, Devoe has become particularly significant with Haywood and Alvarado struggling to score.
“I recognize that I’m one of the point guards on the team,” Devoe said. “It’s a huge role for me. I think a lot of guys look at me for leadership.”
Banks’ game on the offensive end is still coming along. He’s prone to turnovers and his jump hook needs to get better. But he’s averaging 12 points per game in ACC play, most on the team, while shooting 53 percent from the field.
Defensively, he has been solid for Pastner while manning the back line of Tech’s 1-3-1 zone defense, challenging shots and playing help defense on the interior and then hustling out to challenge corner 3-pointers. Through Sunday’s games, he was ranked 12th nationally with 2.52 blocks per game. He had four blocks against the Irish after rejecting seven shots against Clemson last Wednesday.
“Banks, I think, has become one of the best big guys in our league,” Brey said. “He’s got a great demeanor. He’s got (good) hands and feet around the bucket, he blocks shots.”
Banks’ importance to Tech’s defense is such that keeping him in the game in the first half of games when he gets two fouls is a no-brainer for Pastner. Against Notre Dame, Banks drew his third foul with 4:05 to play in the first half, requiring Pastner to bring him back to the bench. The Irish had scored 11 points in 24 possessions to that point. Notre Dame went on a spree, scoring 13 points in its final six possessions of the half.
“It was very much related,” Pastner said.
Notre Dame guard T.J. Gibbs said Banks’ absence made a difference at both ends.
“James is a competitor,” he said. “That’s a big guy down there. He’s a shot blocker. He does a lot for them.”
Banks is not as well-rounded a player as former Tech center Ben Lammers was on offense, but “he’s been playing as well as Ben did defensively, in some areas better,” Tech’s coach said. Pastner added that he thinks “for sure” Banks will be named to the All-ACC defensive team and deserves consideration for conference defensive player of the year, which Lammers won as a junior in the 2016-17 season.
Banks’ improvement as the season has gone on – he began the season ineligible after transferring in May from Texas, but received an immediate-eligibility waiver hours before the second game of the season – has been in conjunction with the progress made by Tech’s team defense.
Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said that the Jackets’ defense reacts much more quickly to the ball and the opposition than it did when the teams played at McCamish Pavilion January 9, a 52-49 win for the Hokies.
“And so maybe if you had a second and a half to make a decision, I think now you have three quarters of a second to make a decision, regardless of whether the ball’s in the slot (the wing) or at the nail hole (the middle of the free-throw line) or in the short corner,” Williams said.
On a team that’s 11-13, there’s plenty to address. Besides the 3-point shooting issues, for instance, Tech is 320th in turnover percentage in Division I (KenPom), third-highest among power-conference teams. But it isn’t all a disaster.
“It’s just a lot that’s going on,” Banks said. “We’re trying to take it in stride.”
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