A familiar nemesis, turnovers, returns for Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech has shown this season that it can play without giving the ball away. In 24 games this season, the Yellow Jackets have had seven games in which they turned the ball over 10 times or fewer, most recently in their upset of Florida State on Jan. 26 (nine turnovers).

But more recently than that, including Tech’s 63-53 loss Saturday at Virginia, the numbers have been trending up. The Jackets turned the ball over 10 times in the first half (when they fell behind by as many as 17 points) and 15 times total in a game where perhaps two or three fewer giveaways would have granted them a better chance to win, given that Tech drew as close as two points with just under six minutes to play.

As coach Josh Pastner continues to assert that the Jackets (10-14 overall, 3-10 in the ACC) are close to playing winning basketball, turnovers have been the latest obstacle.

“We are due to get hot and win a bunch of games,” Pastner said. “There’s not a lot of time left, but we’re due. And nothing’s going to be given to us, but we’re there. We’re right there. We’ve just got to put 40 minutes together, and the big thing of that is not turning it over.”

Saturday’s 15-turnover game was Tech’s fourth out of the past five with at least 14 giveaways. The Jackets have not been adept at the other three of the “Four Factors” that are considered the most important factors in scoring: field-goal percentage, offensive rebounding and getting to the free-throw line.

Taking better care of the ball – the fourth factor – would seem to be the one most within Tech’s control. It is of dire importance to Pastner, as he colorfully attested after the game.

“It literally eats days away from me and my internal organs when we turn it over,” Pastner said. “It’s really bad for the kidneys, for the livers, for the heart, the bladders. I could just go on and on. It’s not healthy when we turn it over because it eats at me because I just know those possessions are so precious.”

Unfortunately for Pastner’s organs, his team’s 59 possessions were not quite so precious that he could prevent what appeared to be multiple avoidable giveaways against the Cavaliers (16-9, 10-5), who won their fourth consecutive game as they make a bid for their eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

Of the 15 turnovers, most were the result of errors by the Jackets, starting with the first. In Tech’s first possession of the game, forward Jordan Usher zipped a pass to forward Jordan Meka as he cut to the basket that Meka couldn’t handle.

It was the first of eight turnovers that were arguably unforced. On some, the passer and recipient misread each other. Others, the pass was off target or telegraphed. In the free flow of basketball, mistakes like that will happen. But the volume was costly Saturday, particularly when Virginia turned the ball over only 10 times.

“There were some miscommunications and some miscues there,” Pastner said.

At least two could have led to easy scoring opportunities. Near the end of the first half, guard Michael Devoe dribbled into the lane, drew a double team and had center Rodney Howard cutting to the basket along the baseline. But the pass was either poor or the two misread each other as Devoe’s pass hit off the backboard and was recovered by Virginia guard Kihei Clark.

In the second half, guard Deivon Smith grabbed a defensive rebound and led a break with Howard running full speed to the rim. Smith drove the lane, drawing two defenders, and flipped the ball to Howard right at the basket, but Howard couldn’t catch it cleanly. He went to the floor to recover it but lost possession.

“I thought he was going to lay it up, but he passed it to me, then I fumbled it,” Howard said.

A challenge facing Tech is getting the ball to Meka and Howard in situations where they can catch it cleanly. Both have to develop in their ability to receive the ball, but their teammates have to recognize their deficiencies in the area.

Three more possessions ended in shot-clock violations. It’s a specialty of the Cavaliers, whose fans seem to appreciate their defense forcing a turnover via the shot clock as much as they do a fast-break dunk. Still, Virginia was averaging 1.1 shot-clock violations before Saturday, and it would seem that a team with shot creators including Devoe and Usher could at least get a shot on the rim in such a situation and give itself a chance.

Besides Tech’s scoring opportunities getting reduced by 25%, the Cavaliers also scored 19 points off the Jackets’ 15 turnovers.

“It literally eats days away from me and my internal organs when we turn it over. It's really bad for the kidneys, for the livers, for the heart, the bladders. I could just go on and on. It's not healthy when we turn it over because it eats at me because I just know those possessions are so precious."

- Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner

“I would say (the turnovers) cost us toward the end,” Devoe said.

The puzzle facing Tech with limiting turnovers is this: While it might seem a relatively simple problem to fix – “don’t throw the ball away!” – this isn’t a new problem. Turnovers have been a flaw in the Jackets’ offensive play for almost the entirety of Pastner’s tenure. Pastner had even brought it up Friday, saying that if Tech had turned the ball over nine or 10 times against Miami instead of 18, the Jackets probably could have won.

“Just hitting singles, keep it simple and get the ball in the basket is what we’ve got to do in order for us to be successful,” he said.

After Saturday’s games, the Jackets were 13th in the ACC in turnover percentage (number of possessions that end in turnovers) in league games at 19.2%, according to KenPom. In Pastner’s first four seasons, the Jackets were 15th, 14th, 15th and 15th.

Last season, with the offense run by Jose Alvarado, equipped with the experience and skill developed as a four-year starter, Tech jumped to fourth, and the Jackets’ first ACC tournament title since 1993 followed. But now the Jackets are back where they’ve normally been, despite Pastner’s impassioned preaching of “EPIP” – every possession is precious.

If Pastner can figure out how to instill in his team the approach and habits that only one out of his first five teams developed, the Jackets still have a chance to win their share of their final seven regular-season games, starting with a Tuesday home game against N.C. State. But, if his first five seasons are any guide, it won’t be easy.