Four things that need to happen for Georgia Tech to make ACC Tournament run

Georgia Tech center Rodney Howard scores on a dunk against N.C. State Feb. 15, 2022 at McCamish Pavilion. (Anthony McClellan/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Anthony McClellan

Credit: Anthony McClellan

Georgia Tech center Rodney Howard scores on a dunk against N.C. State Feb. 15, 2022 at McCamish Pavilion. (Anthony McClellan/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Georgia Tech’s defense of its first ACC championship since 1993 has not gone as planned. The Yellow Jackets will take the court Tuesday night at the ACC Tournament as the No. 14 seed, the lowest seed that a defending champion has ever been assigned in conference history.

But it doesn’t mean that the Jackets have a meek exit in mind. They start with No. 11 seed Louisville.

“We’re the defending ACC champions,” guard Michael Devoe said Monday via videoconference. “So for us, we want to go in there and defend and go back and try to get another one. That’s what we had prioritized before the season.”

Here’s four things that likely need to happen for Tech to make a run at the Barclays Center in New York.

1. Michael Devoe gets hot

It hasn’t been the smoothest regular season for Devoe. The senior was hot at the season’s start, hanging 37 on Georgia and 33 on Wisconsin. But, facing constant defensive pressure in the ACC season, the scoring didn’t come as easily, and he began to miss shots he normally makes. His 30.4% 3-point shooting percentage in league games paled compared to his conference numbers in his first three seasons, all above 40%. He was nevertheless named third-team All-ACC, finishing the regular season as the conference’s third-leading scorer at 18 points per game. There’s no reason he can’t regain his stroke at the Barclays Center. He was exuding confidence Monday after his team’s workout at the home of the Brooklyn Nets.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to go in and shock a lot of people,” Devoe said. “It’s a great arena that we got to practice in (Monday). It’s amazing – really good shooter’s gym.”

If Devoe can find that early-season form – “he’s due for that,” coach Josh Pastner said – it would ease the scoring load off his teammates while opening up opportunities for them. Devoe was asked about the possibility of getting hot and leading his team deep into the tournament. His answer was succinct.

Said Devoe, “That’s exactly it.”

2. Rodney Howard finding his place

After fouling out of four consecutive games and limiting his availability at the same time that he was producing some of his best play of the season, center Rodney Howard finished the regular season without fouling out of any of the final three games.

The trouble is, the pendulum may have swung too far the other way, with Howard being more focused on avoiding fouling to the detriment of his game. Clemson shot 68.8% on 2-point field-goal tries in Tech’s March 2 loss to the Tigers and Notre Dame shot 57.6% inside the 3-point arc, both numbers consistent with defeat for Tech.

If Howard can find the middle ground of being aggressive and challenging shots but also avoiding fouls, Tech will be the better for it.

“Rodney needs to play with a high motor, aggressiveness and not think about the fouls,” Pastner said.

3. Avoid turnovers, scoring lapses

Disaster nearly befell Tech on Saturday, when the Jackets gave away all of their 15-point second-half lead and had to go to overtime to defeat Boston College at McCamish Pavilion. Particularly damaging was a second-half stretch of more than six minutes and 10 possessions in which the Jackets failed to score, turning the ball over an improbable seven times.

It was, unfortunately for Tech, not a terribly surprising development, given the team’s habit of going scoreless for three- and four-minute stretches. The lapses have sent the Jackets to defeat several times this season.

Tech will have to break a season-long pattern and will again have to do so without backup point guard Deivon Smith, whom Pastner said is out for the season after suffering a concussion in the win Feb. 19 at Pitt. Smith’s absence has meant a higher minutes load for starting point guard Kyle Sturdivant – the 10-possession drought against Boston College was in part the result of Pastner trying to give him a short break and also keeping Devoe on the bench with foul trouble.

4. Get some luck

Tech received a stroke of fortune already when it drew Louisville in the opening round. Any team playing on the first day of the tournament isn’t going to be a juggernaut, but the Cardinals might be the least of the six at this point. Louisville fired coach Chris Mack in January, and the Cardinals lost 14 of their final 16 regular-season games. Louisville may not be long for Brooklyn.

As for the potential Wednesday draw – No. 6 seed Virginia – Pastner has never beaten the Cavaliers in eight tries as coach of the Jackets. But, as Pastner offered (with his typical hopefulness) on Saturday, if Tech beats Louisville, the Jackets will play a Virginia team that won’t have had the benefit of getting practice time in the arena.

Further, the Cavaliers are trying to play their way into the NCAA Tournament and (if the Jackets are lucky) they may be feeling some pressure on Wednesday. Since beating Tech on Feb. 12 to reach 16-9, the Cavaliers lost three of their final five regular-season games, though two were decided in the final minute.

If a bounce or a call (or many bounces and many calls) can go their way, all the better for the Jackets.

If the Jackets can get past the Cavaliers, No. 3 seed North Carolina awaits.