Against Pittsburgh, challenge mounts for Georgia Tech

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

After two draining losses in a span of 48 hours, Georgia Tech doesn’t have to guard against only being physically depleted for its Sunday afternoon home game against Pittsburgh. Coach Josh Pastner will need to be wary of the Yellow Jackets’ collective psyche as they play their third game in five days.

“I think we’re in great cardio shape,” Pastner told the AJC on Saturday, a day after the Jackets lost to Clemson 74-72 on a last-second 3-pointer by Nick Honor. “I think it’s more a mental thing.”

Tech lost to No. 9 Virginia on Wednesday 57-49 in a game that was in doubt until perhaps the final two minutes. At Clemson on Friday, the Jackets led 72-71 with 8.4 seconds remaining. Guard Jose Alvarado (an 87.8% free-throw shooter) was at the line for two shots.

But he missed both – the first game this season in which he missed consecutive free throws. Honor made his 3-pointer from perhaps four feet behind the arc – off the glass, no less – with 1.1 seconds left.

In the locker room afterward, Pastner said, Alvarado was in tears as teammates consoled him.

“Nobody took it harder than Jose,” Pastner said. “But his teammates rallied around him and just gave him tons of love and support, and we all back Jose and we love Jose, and he’s going to be in that position again, and the next time, he’s going to step up and make the free throws.”

That could well be true, but it doesn’t change that the Jackets (9-8, 5-6 ACC) will have to pick themselves up from that emotional low of two consecutive hard-fought defeats in a span of three days, one of them a stunner. They both were costly in Tech’s pursuit of its first NCAA tournament berth since 2010. With seven regular-season games remaining, Tech probably needs to finish 6-1 to have any security regarding its chances to make the tournament.

“I thought we did a good job responding to Clemson after our loss vs. Virginia,” Pastner said. “We didn’t let Virginia beat us twice. Now we can’t let Clemson beat us twice. We’re going to have to respond with great energy (Sunday).”

Like Clemson, Pitt (9-6, 5-5) will have a significant advantage in rest. The Panthers have not played since Feb. 6.

“As you know, I keep a pretty small rotation,” Pastner said. “I probably do need to try to get a little bit of a longer rotation as best I can.”

It goes against Pastner’s philosophy, but getting key players more rest would seem helpful in this particular circumstance. Guard Michael Devoe was on the floor for the entire 40 minutes Friday and starters Bubba Parham, Jordan Usher and Alvarado were on the floor for 37 minutes or more. Forward Moses Wright played 30 minutes, but likely would have received more minutes had he not been in foul trouble. Against Virginia, Devoe, Parham, Usher and Alvarado all played 34-plus minutes.

Coming off the bench, forward Rodney Howard has been improving, as has guard Kyle Sturdivant. They could see more time against Pitt, as might forward Khalid Moore.

It’s not easy to tease out how much Pastner’s playing rotation strategy has affected Tech late in games. In both losses to Virginia, the road loss to Duke and Friday’s defeat at Clemson, the Jackets were in the games late but faltered in the final minutes. On the other hand, Tech also has won games in the final minutes against North Carolina and Notre Dame.

Last season, Tech was 5-1 in ACC games in which the Jackets were either ahead or down by three points or fewer with Pastner relying on the same playing-time strategy.

“Sometimes I go with guys for 40 minutes, 38 minutes, 39 minutes,” he said. “It’s just kind of what I do.”

Whether it’s related, Tech’s 3-point shooting likely will need to be better. In four of their past five games, the Jackets have shot less than 30% from 3-point range and are 1-3 in them. Before that stretch, Tech had two such games in its first 12 games. In the losses to Virginia and Clemson, the Jackets were a combined 9-for-40 (22.5%). The team’s season average is 35.5%.

It is a poorly timed slump. Not only is Tech in the middle of a stretch of games that will decide the season’s outcome, but this team is by far the most dependent on its 3-point shooting of any of Pastner’s five teams.

“It we’re not making it, it makes it hard, and we’re getting great looks,” Pastner said.