Why winning loose balls is ‘everything’ to Josh Pastner

Georgia Tech fans can get their first look at new coach Josh Pastner’s team and style Saturday night, when the Yellow Jackets play Shorter in an exhibition at McCamish Pavilion.

The Jackets may demonstrate an eagerness to get on the floor to fight for loose balls. Pastner would hope so. He places such a value on winning “50/50” balls that he has had them charted every day since the first day of practice.

“50/50 balls are a direct correlation to winning and losing,” Pastner said. “You win in the 50/50 ball battle, you’ve got a great opportunity to win the game. That means that you’re first to the floor, you’re finding a way to win. You’ve got more energy. I’m just a big believer in 50/50 balls.”

He considered making the starting lineup against Shorter the five players who had earned the best 50/50 ball scores. However, after point guard Josh Heath was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating team rules, Pastner decided that seeing particular lineup combinations took precedence.

Pastner brought the charting of loose-ball collection and other so-called hustle stats — “I call ’em energy stats,” he said — with him from Memphis. With the Jackets, it could help build toughness in a team that will need every intangible in its favor.

The Jackets were picked to finish 14th in the 15-team ACC in a preseason media poll and are considered by various outlets to be one of the weakest power-conference teams in the country. Tech lost 78 percent of its scoring and 67 percent of its minutes off of last season’s team, and the Jackets’ leading returning scorer, forward Quinton Stephens, averaged five points last season. While the Jackets won 21 games and reached the second round of the NIT, coach Brian Gregory was dismissed at the end of the season.

“We’ve got to breed competitive excellence in our team,” Pastner said. “We’ve got to breed fire and competitive (will) to give us any chance to win.”

For the team’s private scrimmage Oct. 29, Pastner set the lineup based on which players had secured the most rebounds in practice. He borrowed the practice of setting lineups based on hustle stats from Arizona legend Lute Olson, for whom Pastner played as a walk-on and later served as an assistant coach.

“If we start a point guard and four centers, we’ll do that,” Pastner said before the scrimmage.

To further drive home the value he places on loose balls, Pastner said he will run back clips of players losing 50/50 ball challenges repeatedly in team video sessions.

“I replay that thing over and over and over in front of the whole team,” he said. “I literally embarrass them, that this is unacceptable. On the other hand, if they win the 50/50 ball, I play that over and over and over and praise them like you can’t believe.”

Pastner also puts the team through what he calls “blood drills,” whose name gives a hint at what happens.

“You’ve got to go find a way to get (the ball),” he said. “You’ve got to be first to the floor, and you’d better dive and get it. And I make our guys run and go pick their man up. We leave no man behind.”

Pastner said that team trainer Richard Stewart told him that more players had gotten stitches “than we’d had in a long time.”

The Jackets should expect their coach to continue his emphasis. Pastner said that, at every TV timeout, the first thing he tells his team is how it has done on 50/50 balls since the last TV timeout.

Said Pastner, “50/50 balls are everything to me.”

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