Why Georgia Tech’s game against Kentucky matters

Playing Kentucky in a home-and-home series is in part a play for greater exposure for Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets' two games against the vaunted Wildcats — Dec. 14 in Lexington, Ky., with the return game in November 2020 at State Farm Arena — will likely draw national-television coverage and win local interest.

But, an AJC interview with coach Josh Pastner left little doubt that the Yellow Jackets are playing the Wildcats to better position themselves for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament at the end of the upcoming season.

“That’s our plan,” Pastner said. “I recognize it’s hard to do, but we’ve got to operate and plan that we’ve got an opportunity to do it.”

For better or worse, it would be no small accomplishment for Tech to make that leap, having finished last season 14-18 and ranking 228th nationally (and last in the ACC) in adjusted offensive efficiency, though the Jackets were 43rd in adjusted defensive efficiency. Pastner is heading into his fourth year and attempting to lead the Jackets to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. Only three power-conference teams have been absent from the tournament for longer (Boston College, Rutgers and Washington State).

» More: Tech not likely to seek transfer waiver for Jordan Usher

But, as the Jackets prepare to leave for Spain on Thursday for a nine-day trip in which they’ll play four exhibition games, Pastner holds high optimism about the 2019-20 team’s chances for the tournament, a stance he has held since the end of last season. His decision to add Kentucky is another indicator of his confidence that this team could end the NCAA-tournament drought.

“It’s a challenging and tough schedule,” he said, “but our plan is, we want to try to put ourselves in position to be in the tournament. That’s our plan.”

Pastner was moved to add the Wildcats after hearing from NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt and Duke athletic director Kevin White (chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee) at the ACC spring meetings in Amelia Island, Fla., in May.

What Pastner took from both was that the first criteria in evaluating potential tournament teams is a team’s performance in “Quad 1” games (home games against teams in the top 30 in the NCAA’s new NET rankings, neutral-site games against the top 50 and road games against the top 75). The second and third factors — Pastner said they’re viewed equally — are record in Quad-2 games (home 31-75, neutral-site 51-100, road 76-135) and strength of non-conference schedule.

In the case Tech’s spot in the tournament isn’t assured “and you’re on the bubble, they’re looking at about eight teams, 10 teams at the end there, (and) who you play is going to factor in besides the wins,” Pastner said. “Who you played in the non-conference is going to factor in.”

N.C. State serves as a cautionary tale. The Wolfpack were 22-11 on selection Sunday and 9-9 in the ACC, but were left out of the NCAA tournament with one of the weakest non-conference strength of schedules in Division I. (Their 3-9 record in Quad-1 games didn’t do them any favors, either.)

In scheduling Kentucky, Pastner is trying to leave no doubt for the selection committee should the Jackets be on the bubble in March. Besides Kentucky, Tech plays Arkansas, Georgia and Nebraska out of 11 non-conference games. The Jackets could also face Houston and Washington in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu in December.

“We have a hard schedule, there’s no denying that,” he said.

There is also the matter of trying to win games and improving as a team in order to take care of the first criteria, Quad-1 wins. Beyond returning 74% of the team’s minutes played and 73% of its scoring — notably leading scorers Jose Alvarado, James Banks and Michael Devoe — Pastner will add wing player Jordan Usher, a transfer from USC, at the end of the fall semester. Pastner said that the Wheeler High grad has played at a high level this summer and expects that “he’s going to give us a great lift and jolt of energy and he’s going to help us win games.”

Pastner is also hopeful for an immediate-eligibility waiver for VMI transfer and Brookwood High grad Bubba Parham, who led the Southern Conference in scoring last season and shot 39.7% from 3-point range.

“I think Bubba, he’s going to be a really good shooter,” Pastner said. “He’s done a really nice job of being able to score but also not just being a scorer, he’s been a good playmaker. He’s a joy to coach and I think people are going to really love watching him play. He’s a good player.”

» Also: How VMI transfer Bubba Parham chose Georgia Tech

Multiple players have also made significant progress in developing skill-wise and physically over the summer, notably forward Moses Wright. Also, the upcoming trip to Spain has permitted Pastner 10 extra practices, providing preparation time that figures to pay dividends in the regular season, as well.

“I like what we’re doing, and we’re able to work on some things and try some different things out,” he said. “I like it. I’m excited. It should be a good trip.”

On the other hand, Tech does not have a post player on the roster other than Banks, a situation so dire that Pastner and his staff continue to recruit, even though Tech’s fall semester begins Aug. 19. If it doesn’t happen, Tech will have to play two styles of offense — one when Banks is in, one when he isn’t — and hope that Banks doesn’t get hurt. Also, there’s no guarantee that Parham will receive a waiver.

All that said, “I believe in our guys,” Pastner said. “I really like our team.”

As a result, the Jackets have a mid-December appointment for Rupp Arena, one of the most hallowed venues in college basketball.

“We’ve got to put ourselves in position to play in the NCAA tournament,” Pastner said. “Obviously, things have to go our way. No. 1, we have to stay healthy. No. 2, we have to have a couple balls bounce our way. Three, if we’re in that position, we have to control what we can control, and one of our controllables is non-conference schedule.”