North Carolina State's Markell Johnson (11) drives around Georgia Tech's Jose Alvarado (10) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, March, 6, 2019. (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP)
Photo: Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer
Photo: Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer

Without Jose Alvarado, Georgia Tech in a pickle

Georgia Tech’s season is less than a month old, but point guard Jose Alvarado’s ankle injury already has rendered it wobbly.

After Alvarado played in a loss at Georgia on Nov. 20 with limited effectiveness, coach Josh Pastner decided to sit him out against Arkansas on Monday and probably the next three games, including Sunday’s home game at 6 p.m. against Bethune-Cookman.

“I shouldn’t have played him vs. Georgia because we were playing five-on-four,” Pastner said. “He only practiced one time in 1-1/2 weeks (before the game).”

With Alvarado adding little against Georgia and sitting out against the Razorbacks, the Yellow Jackets lost both games to fall to 2-2. Without its floor leader, Tech had an assist/turnover ratio in the two losses of 18/39. The Jackets lost 62-61 in overtime to Arkansas at McCamish Pavilion on a banked-in long-distance 3-pointer in the final second. It’s hardly a stretch to think a healthy Alvarado would have made the difference.

“You take somebody’s quarterback (off the floor), that makes it tough,” Pastner said.

Tech would seem a strong candidate to get past Bethune-Cookman without Alvarado. However, the Jackets will be vulnerable in their following two games – home games against Nebraska on Wednesday and Syracuse on Dec. 7 – without a player who is probably in the top two on the roster in importance and was the team’s best player in the offseason.

“I would love to have him this week, but it’s highly doubtful,” Pastner said.

It would not be a surprise if the Jackets were 3-4 when they head to Lexington, Ky., to play No. 9 Kentucky on Dec. 14, when Alvarado is expected back. Were Tech to depart Rupp Arena at 3-5, it might be excessive to say that the Jackets’ NCAA tournament hopes would be shot, but they would face a severely steep climb with the bulk of ACC play still to come.

“It could hurt us in the short term, but (we’re) making sure that he’s healthy for the ACC,” Pastner said.

For a team that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2010, a mediocre record after December shouldn’t be a surprise. In that span, the Jackets have finished with a winning record only three times.

But since the end of last season, with the core of the roster returning, Pastner has stated that his plan was for this team to end the drought. The Kentucky game, in fact, was scheduled this summer (as part of a home-and-home) with the intent of making an impression on the selection committee.

Even if Tech were to go into the bulk of ACC play at 7-5, the Jackets might need to win at least 10 or 11 of their remaining 18 ACC games to have a case for the tournament. Those 18 league games include no shortage of tough matchups, including a home-and-home with No. 2 Louisville, road games at No. 6 North Carolina and Florida State and home games against No. 1 Duke and No. 7 Virginia. History does not offer an encouraging word to the possibility. Tech last had a winning record in ACC play in 2004, the year it last made the Final Four.

(Tech’s candidacy for the tournament all presumes that its appeal to the NCAA to rescind its postseason ban for recruiting violations has not concluded by the end of the regular season or is actually granted. By NCAA rules, penalties under appeal aren’t applied until the appeals process is over. Tech’s appeal is not expected to be completed by then.)

Until Alvarado comes back, Tech will continue to rely on guards Bubba Parham and Michael Devoe to handle the point-guard role, trying to fill the void left by a player who is a vocal leader, imbues the team with his toughness and whom Pastner has regularly depended on to play 38-plus minutes a game. While Devoe has opened the season on a scoring binge – he has 90 points in four games – both he and Parham have had a tough time running the offense. Their combined assist/turnover ratio against Elon (against whom Alvarado sat out), Georgia and Arkansas is 12/18. Alvarado’s ratio last season was 105/64.

Pastner has been down this road previously. In his second season, 2017-18, center Ben Lammers severely turned his ankle in the second game of the season.

Lammers was the reigning ACC defensive player of the year and an offensive focal point. Also, guard Josh Okogie was out with a finger injury suffered in an exhibition game.

Rather than sit Lammers and let him recover, Pastner chose to ride his bum ankle, deciding that “playing with Ben at 50 percent is better than playing without Ben.”

The decision backfired. With Lammers hobbling and Okogie out, Tech finished the non-conference schedule at 6-6, its postseason hopes scrambled. Worse, Lammers’ ankle was still not healthy, as it would have been had Pastner chosen to bite the bullet and sit him. Lammers labored through the rest of the season, and the Jackets finished the season 13-19.

Two years later, Pastner will try the opposite path. Already, two of his three keys for the season – staying healthy and holding down the fort until transfer guard Jordan Usher becomes eligible after the Kentucky game – are shaky.

“We have a better chance of winning with Jose – he’s a really good player,” Pastner said. “But I still like our team a lot, and that’s where guys like Bubba and Mike are going to have to carry the load. We’re going to need other guys to step up.”

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