Georgia Tech needing to keep Rodney Howard out of foul trouble

Georgia Tech has at least two challenges to face with its post play as it prepares for a road game Saturday at Notre Dame. One is keeping center Rodney Howard off the bench in foul trouble. Another is developing backup center Saba Gigiberia to where he’s not on it with him.

The development of Howard this season is such that, where once he wasn’t doing enough to merit being on the floor, now the fact that he can’t stay on it is a problem.

In the Yellow Jackets’ 62-58 home loss to Virginia Tech on Wednesday, Howard played 19 minutes before fouling out. While in the game, he collected eight points with four rebounds. Had Howard been able to stay clear of foul trouble – he fouled out with 8:32 to play – Tech probably would have won, coach Josh Pastner said after the game.

Foul trouble has been a constant for Howard in his recent uptick in play. While he had scored in double figures in the four games before the loss to Virginia Tech, including a career-high 19 points in an overtime loss at Syracuse on Monday, he also fouled out of three of them and was called for four fouls in the other. He has fouled out of six games this season and reached four fouls in six others.

“I tell Rodney Howard, ‘Protect your first foul,’” Pastner said Friday. “That first foul’s just as vital as your fourth foul. You have to protect your first foul. That doesn’t mean don’t play hard, but you’ve got to protect it.”

Pastner used as an example the first foul that Howard committed in the game against the Hokies, when he wasn’t positioned strongly for a rebound.

“Well, what do you think the referee’s going to do?” Pastner asked. “He’s going to call a foul, and that’s what I told Rodney: ‘Protect your first foul.’”

Tech has come to depend on Howard, who has averaged 13 points and 7.4 rebounds in Tech’s past five games. In the two games before that, he was ineffective to the point that, even while starting, he played only a total of 10 minutes. His scoring has been particularly impactful. Howard had averaged 4.6 points per game in his first 18 games.

“We’re just better with Rodney on the floor,” Pastner said. “He probably would have ended up with a double-double if he didn’t foul out.”

The Jackets, who have lost five of their past six and go into Saturday’s game with an overall record of 11-17 and 4-13 in the ACC, need every advantage they can obtain, including an unencumbered Howard.

“I think Rodney’s been playing his best basketball over the past two to three games, so losing him was big,” guard Kyle Sturdivant said after the Virginia Tech game.

One reason why losing Howard to foul trouble has been costly is that backup forward Jordan Meka has been a solid defender but is limited on offense. The other option among Tech’s post players, Gigiberia, does not have Pastner’s trust to play effectively. Gigiberia has played in 15 games this season, starting one, and averaged 7.8 minutes per game He has not played in Tech’s past seven games.

“I just think Saba’s going to be good,” Pastner said. “He’s got to learn to continue to play with that motor, that sense of urgency. And he’s such a sweet young man. I love him. He’s going to be really good. Got great upside. He’s just got to continue to play with that motor, that defensive mindset, that second and third effort.

“If he can get into that, he’s got a chance to be really good because he’s extremely talented. I believe that he’s going to get there, I really do. I know he can get there.”