5 things to know as Georgia Tech opens the season

March 2, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's guard Kyle Sturdivant (1) and DukeÕs forward Wendell Moore Jr. (0) fight for a loose ball in the first half of a NCAA college basketball game at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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March 2, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's guard Kyle Sturdivant (1) and DukeÕs forward Wendell Moore Jr. (0) fight for a loose ball in the first half of a NCAA college basketball game at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech opens its season Tuesday night against Miami (Ohio) at McCamish Pavilion. The ACC’s defending champions will move forward without their two linchpin pieces, Jose Alvarado and Moses Wright. Coach Josh Pastner used an unlikely word to describe the process of learning how his sixth team can function without the ACC’s defensive player of the year and its player of the year: Exciting.

Five things to know as the Jackets start regular-season play:

1. First challenge

Pastner is looking forward to figuring out how to replace the production and leadership that Wright and Alvarado provided.

“That’s going to be a course of our season, on how we adapt to life without those two,” Pastner said. “That will be interesting for us. I’m excited to see how this team takes its own identity as we move forward.”

Pastner is more concerned about replacing Alvarado and Wright as defenders. (A shot-blocking and rebounding force, Wright joined Alvarado on the ACC’s all-defensive team.)

At the point, Kyle Sturdivant and Deivon Smith are expected to split time. The post players who will follow Wright are Rodney Howard, Jordan Meka and Saba Gigiberia. Pastner has said that all three will work as a committee.

“We three have a different game,” Howard said. “Jordan Meka’s probably the most athletic out of me and Saba. He’s going to jump really high, aggressive. Saba, he has all the offensive skill. He just has to put everything together. And then me, just being a defensive presence and just being patient and stuff like that.”

Sturdivant said that Alvarado left “a great foundation” behind by sharing his leadership wisdom with him and others.

“We all have to step up, and the big shoes that he did leave are not just going to be (filled by) one or two people,” Sturdivant said. “I think the biggest thing is the leadership that he left, so I know we’re all trying to step up to that role and be accountable. "

2. Where Tech could be better

With the addition of Smith, in particular, Pastner’s sixth team will be faster and quicker than his fifth, he said. With Smith and Sturdivant running the point, the look of the offense figures to be different than it had been with Alvarado, who was hardly slow, but did not have the end-to-end speed that his successors do.

“He’s fast,” Sturdivant said of Smith, the Grayson High grad who transferred from Mississippi State. “I feel like I’m fast, but he’s just as fast or even faster.”

Where last year he often relied on a rotation of six players, Pastner also expects the team to be deeper. Particularly once Bubba Parham returns from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee, the Jackets might go eight deep. (Guard Tristan Maxwell will also miss the opener, Friday’s home game vs. Stetson and possibly Monday’s home game vs. Lamar, as he recovers from a dental procedure.)

That could mean more pressing, more man-to-man defense and more transition offense. It all remains to be seen as the Jackets try to figure themselves out.

Last season, “We kind of played a little bit slower, but we still got out and ran,” Sturdivant said. “I think this year, it’s going to be a little bit opposite. We’re going to try to push the pace a little bit more, but also we can still play half-court because I feel everyone is comfortable within our offense and everyone knows their role.”

3. Taking stock of the freshmen

Sturdivant and Howard gave their impressions of the three freshmen, guards Miles Kelly and Deebo Coleman and forward Jalon Moore.

Sturdivant: “Miles is a really good shooter, really good scorer. Long, has a lot of potential on defense. Deebo’s a strong freshman who has a college-ready body. You don’t see too many freshmen walk in with his body. Also a really good scorer. Jalon also has a really mature body for a freshman, high-level athlete who’s going to help us, I really feel like, especially towards the end of the season.”

Howard: “Miles, he can shoot the ball. I like the way he shoots the ball a lot. Deebo, it feels like he’s an aggressive scorer, like he wants to score. Jalon, he’s a good defender. He can rebound and finish around the basket.”

4. Howard bringing defense

As Pastner has pointed out multiple times in the preseason, Tech has had a post player on the ACC’s all-defensive team for each of his first five seasons – Ben Lammers in the first two years, James Banks the next two and Wright last season. Howard would seem the most likely candidate to extend the streak.

Howard, who transferred prior to last season from Georgia, described his role this way: “Dominate in the paint, finishing all my shots around the rim, making smart reads in the high post, a force on the rim.”

Howard is a defense-first player and struggled to get playing time last season, in part because Wright was so dynamic but also because he hadn’t had much time with Reveno to develop and learn the position because COVID-19 restrictions put a limit on offseason and preseason training.

“But this season’s been way different,” Howard said. “We started working way earlier. I got to put a lot of work in with coach ‘Rev.’ It helps a lot. I think it’s starting to pay off, too.”

Shot blocking and rebounding out of his assigned area have been two focuses for defense, along with honing his jump hook and his drive from the high post on offense.

5. Early arrival

Pastner got his first win of the season at 5:14 p.m. Thursday when his wife Kerri delivered their fourth child together, son Cason. Kerri’s due date was actually Tuesday, but her doctor chose to speed up the process last Thursday because of concerns about possible risks.

On top of a safe and healthy delivery, Pastner was saved from missing the season opener.

“I guess he beat the shot clock,” Pastner said.

If the baby had arrived Tuesday, Pastner said he had it in his mind that he could still make it to the game if it had happened earlier in the day.

“I think my wife looked at me crazy,” Pastner said. “She says, ‘No, you’re not coaching the game Tuesday if I give birth Tuesday.’ So everything worked out.”

Associate head coach Eric Reveno, who was head coach at Portland for 10 seasons, would have stood in for Pastner.

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