For one game, Georgia Tech’s small lineup hums with efficiency

Georgia Tech guard Tristan Maxwell (shooting) attempts a 3-pointer against Boston College at Conte Forum Jan. 12, 2021. Maxwell scored a career-high 22  points for the Yellow Jackets. (Keith Swindell)

Credit: Keith Swindell

Credit: Keith Swindell

Georgia Tech guard Tristan Maxwell (shooting) attempts a 3-pointer against Boston College at Conte Forum Jan. 12, 2021. Maxwell scored a career-high 22 points for the Yellow Jackets. (Keith Swindell)

After his team lost to Notre Dame on Saturday night, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner did not go immediately home from McCamish Pavilion. Rather, he sat in his car and ruminated on his team, which had lost for the seventh time in the past eight games.

“I was sitting in my car for about two hours in the parking lot, just contemplating,” he said. “We’ve got to get ourselves out of this hole.”

The Yellow Jackets were neither shooting nor moving the ball well. They ranked last in the ACC in offensive efficiency (KenPom) by a healthy margin. Pastner felt compelled to do something to help his team score.

“That’s why I felt going small would be better for us right now, at this present time offensively,” Pastner said.

He spoke following Tech’s 81-76 win at Boston College on Wednesday night. After intermittently using lineups without either of his available post players in previous games, Pastner committed to it fully against the Eagles. Forward Jordan Meka, who had started the previous three games in place of center Rodney Howard (out with an ankle injury), played only two minutes off the bench and forward Saba Gigiberia did not play at all. It was a significant change for Tech to go without a traditional post player. Howard averaged 26.8 minutes in his 11 starts and Meka 19.8 in his three starts.

Against Boston College, forwards Jordan Usher and Khalid Moore, whose games and bodies (both are 6-foot-7) are more suited to playing on the perimeter, shared time as the focal point of Tech’s Princeton offense and then defending the Eagles’ post players with varying success. Defending the likes of 7-foot Quinten Post was a literal tall challenge, but both embraced it.

“Coach Pastner is one of my favorite people on earth,” Usher said. “He’s a real genuine dude. He cares about me. I would do anything for him. So if he asked me to play from the sideline the whole game, I would be disappointed, but I would do it. It’s nothing new. I just do as Coach asks me. It got us a win.”

Whether it can be a path forward in the Jackets’ defense of their ACC championship remains to be seen, but it worked for one night, at least.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to do it every game, but for right now, we just had to do that to give us our best chance to get better offensive production and give us the best chance to win,” Pastner said.

Particularly with Usher, the offense flowed more smoothly. Usher is a gifted passer and, holding the ball at the elbow, was able to slip passes to teammates cutting to the basket, a staple of the offense. By the metrics of KenPom, the Jackets (7-8, 1-4 ACC) registered a far higher offensive efficiency score (112.4) than they had in their previous nine games as they won their first ACC game of the season after four defeats.

Tech set season highs for ACC games in points, field-goal percentage (50.9%), 3-pointers and 3-point field-goal percentage (11-for-25, 44%) and assists (17). The Jackets received a massive lift from guard Tristan Maxwell, who scored a career-high 22 points off the bench with 7-for-11 shooting from 3-point range in only the fourth game of the sophomore’s career.

“We were the best we’ve been all year offensively,” Pastner said. “I thought our pace, our cutting, the playing without the ball, the movement – we got great looks all night because we played with great burst.”

It was a game won in a fashion atypical for Pastner and his defense-first mentality. In going small, Pastner, who doesn’t mind reminding people that Tech has placed its center or power forward on the ACC all-defensive team in each of his first five seasons, traded defense for offense.

Post, the Boston College backup center, had free reign at the basket, scoring a career-high 24 points on 10-for-14 shooting. The Eagles shot 56.1% (23-for-41) inside the 3-point arc, typically a harbinger of defeat for Tech. Before Wednesday, in Pastner’s six seasons, the Jackets were 8-23 when opponents shot 55% or better on 2-point shots.

But the Jackets overcame that with efficiency on offense and deleting 10 of Boston College’s 70 possessions with steals, one advantage of having a smaller (and quicker) defense.

“It’s sort of like the change we made last year when we said, ‘OK, we’ve got to go smaller,’” Pastner said. “Now, obviously, it’s different, because Moses (Wright) was a shot blocker and had more size (than Usher), but we had to do that.”

How much Tech can rely on the small lineup going forward is the question. To start, North Carolina has a gifted trio of big players in Armando Bacot (6-10), Dawson Garcia (6-11) and Brady Manek (6-9). If Post, who had been averaging 8.2 points per game this season, was able to wreck the Jackets for 24, the Tar Heels likely could do more damage. Further, Boston College (6-8, 1-3) is not quite a measuring stick.

“You’ve got to score,” Pastner said. “We’ve been good defensively, and we were good again (Wednesday), especially in the second half, but we’ve got to be able to score.”