January 8, 2020 Atlanta: Georgia Tech players Michael Devoe (from left), Bubba Parham, Moses Wright, James Banks III, and Jose Alvarado take the court during the second half against Duke in a NCAA college basketball game on Wednesday, January 8, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton

Timing could be right for Georgia Tech’s tournament hopes

Once Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner grabs hold of a talking point, he has the habit of relying on it to the point of parody. His most recent is the widely accepted kernel that guard play is paramount in college basketball.

When he met with media Monday in advance of the Yellow Jackets’ Wednesday night home game against Notre Dame, he ties answers to five different questions back to the importance of guard play.

“I know I’m a repeater,” he said in conclusion to a question about a perceived improvement in consistent effort, “But guard play – when your guards are playing well, things are good, too.”

As the Jackets’ head into a week with two games at McCamish Pavilion, Pastner might lock onto another truism – timing is everything. In his fourth season, with possibly his best team and in search of Tech’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2010, Pastner has the benefit of trying to win in an ACC that isn’t as withering as it typically is.

“There’s more opportunity, I think, for everyone this year,” Pastner said. “I think every game you play, it’s unpredictable. So anybody can beat anybody.”

The NCAA’s NET rankings spell it out. Going into Tuesday’s games, there was one team in the top 10 (Duke at No. 3) and four in the top 40. On the same date last year, there were four top-10 teams and seven in the top 40. The ACC tied a record last year with three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament – Duke, North Carolina and eventual national champion Virginia.

This year, Duke is again vying for a top seed, but appears more vulnerable without the likes of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. Virginia, which also lost Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome to the NBA after its national championship season, is 11-4, more losses than the Cavaliers sustained in either of the past two seasons. Hammered by injuries, North Carolina is 8-8.

“There’s some new faces and maybe less, I like to just say, men – flat-out men – in the league like there was last year,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said on the ACC teleconference Monday. “So that makes for just a crazy situation 3 through 15, right? Who knows? So I do think, yeah, (it’s more balanced), and for us, given where we are at 1-4 (in the ACC), we’re going, if it’s not that, I’m talking myself into it (being the case).”

As the Jackets’ play appears to be improving with the return of point guard Jose Alvarado from an ankle injury, a less top-heavy ACC means that the Jackets could have an easier path to picking up enough wins to be an NCAA tournament candidate than they would have last year with the same team. And they may have a team, typically strong on defense and showing signs of life on offense, worthy of the attempt.

Further, of the Jackets’ remaining 14 ACC regular-season games, eight are at home. The Jackets have two games against No. 11 Louisville – they’ve already lost competitive matchups against No. 3 Duke and No. 9 Florida State – but the other 12 league games are against the morass that the Jackets are piled in with beneath Duke, Florida State and Louisville.

“The league’s been very good,” Pastner said. “It’s been just so strong at the top, where now, it’s probably just for this year, everyone can go through it and beat anybody at this point.”

That may be the flipside of the opportunity that is in front of Tech. The league has such balance that, as much as the Jackets will want to take advantage of it, there’s plenty of other teams that are thinking similarly.

“I certainly think we have some strong teams in Duke, Louisville, Florida State, for sure, but maybe some of the other teams have taken a little bit of a step back,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said on the teleconference. “But I do think there’s a lot of teams that are better. I think Georgia Tech’s better. Notre Dame’s better.”

Also, the fact that the league may be down could also hamper the Jackets at the same time. In his tournament field published Tuesday, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had only four ACC teams in the field – Duke, Florida State, Louisville and Virginia – with Virginia Tech and N.C. State among the first four out. The Cavaliers were among the last four in.

The projection suggested that merely a strong record in the ACC wouldn’t be enough for Pastner and his team. At 8-8 overall and 3-3 in the league, the Jackets probably need to go 9-5 the rest of the way (not counting their game against Division II Morehouse) to get to 17-13 going into the ACC tournament just to be considered for an at-large berth, and 18 or 19 wins would be far preferable.

(Tech was assessed a postseason ban for recruiting violations, but has appealed the penalty. However, the penalty can’t be enforced during the appeal process, which is unlikely to be completed by the end of the season. Hence, the team is proceeding with the expectation that it will be eligible for this postseason.)

It emphasizes again the scant margin for error that Tech has to play with, starting with this week’s games against the Fighting Irish and Cavaliers.

“It’s big-time,” Alvarado said of the importance of the week’s two games. “We fell short against Duke, we’ve got to protect our house. We’ve got three big road wins. Now it’s time to try to get these two big home-game wins.”

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