Core of Georgia Tech’s ACC championship team once struggled, too

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner offered his laments. There’s been a lid on the hoop, he said. Also: His players just were not able to put the ball in the basket. His team was getting great looks at the basket, but it’s a make-and-miss game, he said.

Pastner has made similar comments many times this season, but these specific remarks were made after a 69-59 road loss to Notre Dame in February 2019. For better or worse, the season that is sliding away from the Yellow Jackets with a six-game losing streak bears more than a passing resemblance to that 2018-19 season.

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That team also relied heavily on sophomores and had major difficulty on the offensive end, particularly from 3-point range. Tech finished last in the ACC in scoring offense and 3-point percentage. That group of Jackets scraped bottom two seasons removed from a surprising postseason run, including a seven-game losing streak in ACC play en route to a 14-18 season record.

While this season’s Jackets team, which faces Duke at home Saturday, isn’t quite last in the ACC in scoring offense or 3-point shooting percentage, the overall themes – a young core struggling to score and win – match. Tech’s record is 8-12 overall and 1-9 in the ACC.

Tech fans know how that 2018-19 group turned out. Two years later, the Jackets celebrated their first ACC championship since 1993 led by three players who took their lumps that season – Moses Wright, Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe.

That season, “we had a lot of sophomores, and then you get most of those guys back, you add a couple pieces, and then year 4 and 5 is when you take off,” Pastner said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, referring to the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. “I want to win every game that we play, but I think there are some similarities.”

The implication, of course, is that better days are ahead with a group that depends heavily on sophomores Miles Kelly, Deebo Coleman and Jalon Moore, who have at times demonstrated scoring and playmaking ability but fallen short of the mark at others.

“Look, I don’t want to go through these losses, I don’t want to go through these growing pains, and I know the fans don’t want to go through them,” Pastner said. “But I would say if we can just stay the course and hopefully get some wins this year, you’ve got a chance. … I think our nucleus group’s got a chance to be really good.”

There are significant differences between that team and this one. For one, that team was Pastner’s third, and this is his seventh. Requests for patience were more easily granted then than now, by which point the “get old and stay old” vision to ensure consistent competitiveness that he has preached would ideally be up and running.

Also, the 2018-19 team, with shot-blocking center James Banks at the bottom of the Jackets’ 1-3-1 zone defense, was drastically better on defense than this season’s team. That team finished 20th in Division I in defensive field-goal percentage (40%).

Before Friday’s games, the Jackets were 195th at 43.5%. Tech’s difficulty in stopping opponents near the basket has considerably limited the Jackets’ chances of winning. Of Tech’s nine ACC losses, eight have been by double digits. (Though the 2018-19 Jackets lost 10 of their 12 regular-season ACC games by 10 points or more.)

The lack of a rim protector is a shortcoming of this team. Center Rodney Howard has strengths, but shot blocking is not one of them. Forward Jordan Meka has potential to be a defensive force, but does not appear ready to play significant minutes. If that flaw can’t be addressed in the offseason, it’s difficult to imagine the team being able to become markedly better on defense, a seeming requirement to improve the win-loss record.

Also, what Pastner’s current freshmen – forwards Freds Pauls Bagatskis and Cyril Martynov – eventually will contribute is a much bigger uncertainty than the 2018-19 team. Devoe was a freshman starter who averaged 9.7 points per game. Bagatskis and Martynov have played less than 30 minutes combined.

Perhaps the most significant distinction between the two teams is the difference in Pastner’s ability to address the roster. The greater fluidity of the transfer market has given coaches much greater opportunity to retool year to year and avoid seasons like the one that the Jackets are enduring. Pastner did bring in guard Lance Terry and forward Ja’von Franklin through the transfer portal this offseason but for various reasons missed on players who could have been more impactful. Tech will face one of them Saturday. As a transfer from Northwestern, Blue Devils center Ryan Young liked Tech enough to make an official visit before deciding on Duke.

As a skilled offensive player, Young was drawn to the possibility of playing as the hub of Tech’s Princeton offense, and it isn’t difficult to conceive that Young could have run the Jackets scheme effectively and been a difference maker. But he chose Duke, where he is averaging 8.0 points and 6.8 rebounds in 21.9 minutes per game.

With the advantage of hindsight, it is tempting to dismiss the comparison on the grounds that there is no player on the roster capable of turning out as Alvarado and Wright did. It is certainly possible, maybe even likely, that none of the current Jackets will match their heights.

However, when Alvarado and Wright were sophomores, anyone predicting that they would become the ACC player of the year (Wright) and ACC defensive player of the year and an NBA regular (Alvarado) would have been scoffed at. Both had obvious potential, but Alvarado shot 28.6% from 3-point range (he had a six-game stretch where he was 3-for-26) and was prone to making wild rushes at the basket. Wright closed his sophomore season with the productivity that indicated what lay ahead, but even in mid-February was sometimes barely getting off the bench.

“But I knew those guys were going to be good in time, and that was part of the plan,” Pastner said.

How much patience Pastner will be afforded to see out his plan with his current crop is uncertain. But players such as guard Deivon Smith, whose 2.4 assist/turnover ratio is third in the ACC, and Moore (9.4 points and 5.6 rebounds after appearing in fewer than half of the team’s games last season) are showing promise. While slumping, Kelly and Coleman have shown the capacity to score in bunches.

Pastner said he “absolutely” feels that the group he has now has the same potential as the 2018-19 team.

“I know the fans don’t want to hear it, and they’re mad about the losses as they should be because I’m extremely mad and frustrated,” Pastner said. “But I do know that we will get better. We will get better. We’ve got a month and a half of games. Let’s see how things play themselves out and go from there.”