Georgia Tech was scheduled to return home from Spain on Friday, finishing an eight-day trip that included visits to Barcelona, Spain and four exhibition games against teams assembled by the Spanish Basketball Federation.
The Yellow Jackets won all four, getting significantly challenged in only one of the games. In a phone interview from Madrid, coach Josh Pastner called it an “outstanding” trip for his team, which goes into the coming season with plans to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
Five takeaways from interviews with Pastner and watching online broadcasts of the game.
One area where Tech desperately wants to improve – shooting from beyond the 3-point arc – was better, but not great. The Jackets were 42-for-123 (34.2%) in their four games. On the plus side, guard Jose Alvarado was 8-for-16, guard Shembari Phillips was 6-for-12 and guard Michael Devoe was 8-for-19. However, transfer guard Bubba Parham was 4-for-19, freshman guard Asanti Price was 6-for-19 and forward Kristian Sjolund was 4-for-14.
Some context: They shot 30.7% last season, which was 331st in Division I. Also, the Jackets were shooting from the international distance – 22 feet, 1-3/4 inches – which is the distance that Division I will adopt this season. The distance until this past season was 20 feet, 9 inches.
However, Tech has been practicing from the new distance since the spring and the Jackets will face much more spirited defense this season than they did in the exhibition games. Parham, who shot 39.7 % last season at VMI, has been expected to particularly help. (Pastner did not know when the NCAA will render a verdict on Parham’s request for an immediate-eligibility waiver.)
Shooting by Devoe, Alvarado and Phillips was promising. The numbers for Parham and Sjolund figure to improve.
“I just think that we’re a better shooting team (than it showed in Spain),” Pastner said. “I think we’re a good shooting team. I just think that Bubba’s a better shooter than what he showed, and I think he was streaky.”
Tempo game needs refining
Particularly in the first game, when its opponent was overmatched, the Jackets were effective at pushing the ball up the floor with the pass. Parham has speed dribbling upcourt and has an ability to find downcourt targets.
Playing at a faster pace has been an emphasis for Pastner, who wants the Jackets to be able to create easier scoring opportunities after finishing last in the ACC in adjusted scoring efficiency.
It’s an area that will need continued work, and the exhibition games were useful for providing opportunities to practice and refine. There were a lot of turnovers on outlet passes.
3. Evan Cole shows progress
The games also provided forward Evan Cole time to play center as an expected backup to starter James Banks. Pastner kept five-player groups intact for each game, swapping them out entirely midway through the quarters. He adjusted combinations game by game but kept Banks and Cole separate.
Cole showed some adeptness at the elbow in Tech’s Princeton-style offense, finding cutters for backdoor layups and setting screens. He also ran the floor well, filling the lane in transition for dunks.
However, he wasn’t as effective on defense, getting posted up for scores. Pastner said he wanted to see Cole to take advantage of his quickness to position himself well to compensate for the disadvantage that he is at with strength and weight against centers.
“He doesn’t need to win fistfights, he needs to win foot fights,” said Pastner, coining a phrase he likely will revisit.
It was unfortunate for Tech that Moses Wright, the other likely backup to Banks, was not able to play because of an ankle injury.
4. Standout play by Jordan Usher
The four games were a strong endorsement for what guard Jordan Usher can contribute when he becomes eligible in December after transferring from USC last January.
Usher played with speed, strength and energy. He made plays for teammates and scored in traffic, an area of weakness for Tech in recent years.
“He just brings instant energy, high motor,” Pastner said. “We’ve got to keep teaching him change of speed, but Jordan’s a really good basketball player. He’s going to really help us.”
Phillips, who was expected to contribute as a starter last season but ended up at the end of the bench, also played well, Pastner said.
5. A ‘free-for-all’ trip to the beach
The objective of developing closer bonds among teammates also was met, Pastner said. The team visited two world-famous soccer stadiums and ate well.
“I think the guys, spending time together, seeing things, just being in another country, trying to get out of their comfort zone out of Atlanta, and seeing other parts of the world, it’s just been a great experience,” Pastner said.
A memorable cultural experience was a visit to a beach in Barcelona, where topless sunbathing is a common and accepted practice. Pastner said that the travel party was unaware until arriving at the beach.
“That was an interesting experience,” he said. “And not only topless. There were men that didn’t wear trunks, either. It was very free-for-all.”
But, Pastner said, the shock soon passed.
“There was no staring,” he said. “People just went about their normal lives, and it was very non-judgmental. You didn’t even notice it.”