As Georgia Tech emerges from pause, many challenges stand in its way

Georgia Tech forward Jordan Usher goes to the rim during the Yellow Jackets' ACC opener against North Carolina at McCamish Pavilion Dec. 5, 2021. (Anthony McClellan/Georgia Tech Athletics)

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Georgia Tech forward Jordan Usher goes to the rim during the Yellow Jackets' ACC opener against North Carolina at McCamish Pavilion Dec. 5, 2021. (Anthony McClellan/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Last seen at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis in March, the Josh Pastner face shield is expected to make its public return Sunday at McCamish Pavilion.

With Georgia Tech emerging from its COVID-19 pause, infection rates rising and Pastner himself having gone through a debilitating case, the Yellow Jackets will be instituting more stringent protocols than had been practiced earlier in the season. That includes Pastner’s ubiquitous protection equipment that accompanied the Jackets last season on their run to the ACC championship and first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010.

Pastner doesn’t like wearing it, “but I sure don’t want COVID again, because it hit me hard,” Pastner said Friday on a videoconference. “And I don’t want anyone else to get it.”

Tech returns from its pause with a 6 p.m. contest against Louisville, which itself returned this week from a pause. The game was delayed from Saturday by the ACC to allow Tech more recovery time. The Jackets have not played since their overtime win over Georgia State on Dec. 21. The pause began the following day, and Tech returned to practice Thursday.

The challenges will be many for Pastner’s team, which broke a four-game losing streak with its 72-62 win over the Panthers to improve to 6-5 and then had to postpone games against Alabama A&M and Syracuse. (Tech is 0-1 in ACC play.)

Navigation of the return from the pause is among the more significant obstacles. In the Jackets’ practice Thursday, Pastner said the team was “totally out of shape and out of sorts,” which does not bode well for their cardiovascular condition in Sunday’s game. Pastner said that the shutdown was necessitated by “a high number of COVID’s on the team.” During the pause, only players who tested negative and were cleared from the protocol were allowed to work out at Tech, and then had to do so individually.

“You just have to be ready to fight and push through it because the only way you get back in condition is by running and getting yourself (in shape),” forward Jordan Usher said.

Further, the Jackets won’t have their full roster for Sunday. Pastner allowed that “not everyone will be able to play” vs. Louisville, but did not identify the players who will be unavailable.

As his team struggled in the non-conference portion of the schedule, Pastner had been pointing to the Syracuse game, originally scheduled for Wednesday, to be the point at which he anticipated his team beginning to find its stride. But not being able to practice and missing two games has interfered with that plan. As the Jackets enter ACC play, Pastner has not settled on a rotation.

Pastner gave minutes to 10 players in the Georgia State game, including all three post players, Rodney Howard, Saba Gigiberia and Jordan Meka, who contributed a productive 21 minutes in only his third game of the season. Pastner typically has relied on seven or eight players.

“I’ve got to figure it out, and we’ll just maybe go with groups that are playing well,” Pastner said. “We’ll keep those groups in and hopefully things work itself out.”

Further, the 10 that took part in the Jackets’ win over the Panthers didn’t include guard Bubba Parham, who is expected to make his season debut against Louisville, and guard Deebo Coleman, who has been part of the rotation but was in the health and safety protocols. Parham has yet to play this season after undergoing surgery in the preseason to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. The Jackets surely can use his defense, ballhandling and scoring punch.

“He’ll play,” Pastner said. “How it all works itself out, I don’t know.”

The Jackets have other problems to solve that being off for more than a week likely didn’t solve. Tech isn’t moving the ball well enough. One of Pastner’s prized statistics is assists/field goal, which he uses as an indicator of how well players are finding open teammates. His goal is 60%, and the Jackets are at 50.2%, lower than the season-ending rate for any of his first five teams.

Tech also has been losing games at the start of the second half. In the Jackets’ past five games, they’ve been outscored 100-60 in the first 10 minutes of the second half, enduring prolonged scoring droughts. Tech lost four of those five games, managing to rally only against Georgia State.

“That has been an issue,” Pastner said.

Another one has been the production of Howard, who has started all 11 games in the post but has averaged .12 rebounds per minute in the past five games. By comparison, Moses Wright’s average was .23 last season and James Banks’ rate was .26 rebounds per minute in 2019-20. Meka’s play against Georgia State – seven rebounds and two blocks in 21 minutes – has earned him another opportunity.

“I’ve been texting (Meka) and telling him, just keep playing with that same intensity and strength,” Usher said. “That’s what we need.”

The Jackets also need to wind back up guard Michael Devoe. After rising to the top of Division I scoring chart at 25 points per game through his first six games, Devoe averaged 15 points per game in the four games since. He was particularly off his game against Georgia State, scoring eight points on 2-for-11 shooting with five turnovers before fouling out.

Part of his relative slump may be that a secondary scorer to back up Devoe has not stepped forward. It could be Usher, who started the season well, cooled slightly and then hammered Georgia State with a career-high 30 points, including 5-for-6 from 3-point range.

“When a scorer like Mike isn’t scoring, I’ve got to hit some shots,” Usher said. “I think (Pastner) wants me to keep scoring, so I’m just going to do whatever he tells me to do. That’s my guy.”

And then, as for Sunday, there’s the matter of actually stopping Louisville (8-4, 2-0). The Cardinals defend well and offer matchup problems in guard Noah Locke (34.5% shooter from 3-point range) and forward Malik Williams (10.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game).

“I’m ready to play,” Usher said. “I wish we were playing (Saturday) still.”

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