Big men under watch for Georgia Tech’s exhibition vs. Morehouse

Georgia Tech forward Rodney Howard (24) blocks a shot from Wake Forest guard Jalen Johnson (2) during an NCAA college basketball game Friday, March 5, 2021, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Andrew Dye/The Winston-Salem Journal via AP)

Credit: Andrew Dye

Credit: Andrew Dye

Georgia Tech forward Rodney Howard (24) blocks a shot from Wake Forest guard Jalen Johnson (2) during an NCAA college basketball game Friday, March 5, 2021, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Andrew Dye/The Winston-Salem Journal via AP)

Saba Gigiberia, Rodney Howard and Jordan Meka are not names most Georgia Tech fans are terribly familiar with, but they may soon be.

On Sunday afternoon, when coach Josh Pastner’s team plays Morehouse at McCamish Pavilion in its only exhibition game of the preseason, he’ll be keeping a close eye on the three young men who are competing for playing time as the post players to succeed ACC player of the year Moses Wright.

“I’ve been on those bigs that we’ve got to be a defensive presence in the middle there,” Pastner told the AJC on Friday. “We’re not going to just have one individual replace Moses, so it’s got to be by committee and by guys finding ways to get things done by a combined effort.”

Whether one or more of them can become productive contributors likely will have a strong bearing on the Yellow Jackets’ capacity to successfully defend their first ACC championship since 1993. In the ACC’s preseason media poll, Tech was picked to finish 10th in the conference; only one defending league champion has been voted to finish lower in the following season.

A year ago, Gigiberia and Meka were freshmen and Howard was a transfer from Georgia playing his second collegiate season. Meka played one game before undergoing season-ending back surgery. Gigiberia played in the season opener (the four-overtime loss to Georgia State), but then played sparingly in seven more games, mostly in runaway wins. Howard played 143 minutes in 19 games, seeing increasing playing time as the season extended.

Gigiberia is the most skilled on offense, but needs to gain strength and play with more effort. Howard is the most rugged defender and perhaps the strongest, but his offensive game needs work. Meka is the best shot blocker of the three, a prized trait, but doesn’t have the same strength or size as Howard.

“All three bigs have continued to get better,” Pastner said. “I’m happy about that. And that’s another reason to see competition against somebody else because you can see, ‘OK, they’re getting better,’ but we need to see it against someone else other than ourselves.”

Strong defensive play out of the post has been a staple for Tech in Pastner’s tenure. In each of his five seasons, Tech’s center or low-post player has made the ACC’s all-defensive team – Ben Lammers in 2017 and 2018, James Banks in 2019 and 2020 and Wright last season. (After getting cut in the preseason by the Los Angeles Clippers, Wright was named to the preseason roster of the Clippers’ G League affiliate.)

“And that’s where I’m saying our focus is,” Pastner said. “Are they making multiple-effort plays on the defensive end? Are they trying to block shots? Are we running the floor, and are they taking care of the basketball? The multiple-effort plays are where they’re going to be graded.”

While Tech also lost a highly significant piece in guard Jose Alvarado, the ACC defensive player of the year, the Jackets have depth at guard with the likes of Michael Devoe, Bubba Parham and Kyle Sturdivant. Devoe was named to the preseason All-ACC second team.

Parham, though, will be out indefinitely after undergoing surgery Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. The team made the announcement Friday.

Parham was a critical piece of the ACC championship team, starting 14 games and playing the fifth most minutes of any player on the team. The senior averaged 6.7 points per game and had a sterling 36-13 assist/turnover ratio, along with contributing effective defense.

Pastner said the injury was suffered last week, although he added that it was an “ongoing/off-going type of thing. It was just one of those deals.” Pastner did not offer a timeline for a return. A recovery time of at least a month would seem likely.

The exhibition will be a significant moment for Morehouse following the death of longtime coach Grady Brewer in May at the age of 63. Doug Whittler, Brewer’s associate head coach since 2015 and a Morehouse graduate and former player, will serve as interim coach for the season.

Brewer had been Morehouse’s coach for 20 seasons, leading the Division II Maroon Tigers to seven SIAC regular-season titles and three NCAA Tournament appearances.