Georgia Tech’s big men going on ‘redshirt’ program

December 6, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's guard Kyle Sturdivant (1) goes to the basket for a shot in the first half against Kentucky during Pit Boss Grills Holiday Hoopsgiving Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
December 6, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's guard Kyle Sturdivant (1) goes to the basket for a shot in the first half against Kentucky during Pit Boss Grills Holiday Hoopsgiving Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

When Georgia Tech plays its first ACC game of the season Tuesday, the Yellow Jackets will face a considerable size deficiency against No. 15 Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla.

In the starting five that FSU coach Leonard Hamilton has employed in the team’s first three games, the Seminoles have started 7-foot-1 center Balsa Koprivica, 6-9 guard Scottie Barnes and 6-8 forward Raiquan Gray. Off the bench, Hamilton can call on 7-2 Tanor Ngom, 6-11 Quincy Ballard and 6-9 Malik Osborne, among others.

In the starting lineup that Tech coach Josh Pastner has used for the past two games – wins over Kentucky and Nebraska to even the record at 2-2 – and figures to stick to, forward Moses Wright is the tallest at 6-9 and guard/forward Jordan Usher is 6-7. The tallest player off the bench that he has used in the past two games is 6-7 Khalid Moore.

“And it’s not just Florida State,” Pastner said Monday. “There’s a lot of teams in the ACC that are bigger.”

The first two games – losses to Georgia State and Mercer – gave Pastner an education on a number of fronts, one being that big men Rodney Howard (6-10) and Saba Gigiberia (7-1) were not as ready to contribute as he had hoped. Howard, the transfer from Georgia, started both games, but Pastner kept him in the two games for a combined 22 minutes and did not play him against Kentucky or Nebraska.

Gigiberia, the freshman from the nation of Georgia, was Pastner’s first sub off the bench in the four-overtime loss to Georgia State. He played five minutes in that game and has not played since. Another option, 6-8 freshman forward Jordan Meka, played eight minutes against Mercer but is out for the season to repair a back condition.

Pastner has relied heavily on true centers in his first four seasons, namely Ben Lammers and James Banks, who were both two-time members of the ACC’s all-defensive team. However, it appears that, at least in the near term, he’ll rely on a rotation in which Wright is his only post player.

“I’m a big believer in both guys,” Pastner said of Howard and Gigiberia. “I think both guys are going to be really good. But it’s going to take time because they need to develop and get better. I would like to get them playing time so they can play. When will that happen? I don’t know.”

Part of the reason that neither are more game-ready is because of Pastner’s decision to limit contact practices in the preseason to avoid the potential for the entire team to be quarantined for contact tracing in the event of a positive COVID-19 test. Not playing any exhibition games – a cost of COVID-19 – also robbed Howard and Gigiberia of opportunities to develop in game conditions.

“Especially for big guys, they need the contact, body to body to each other,” Pastner said.

Among other consequences, the two lost opportunities to learn Pastner’s staple 1-3-1 zone defense, which relies on the post player at the back of the zone to defend the post and challenge shots at the rim and 3-pointers from the corner.

“That takes time,” Pastner said.

With the team having returned to contact practices, Paster is having Howard and Gigiberia do extra skill work outside of practice with assistant coach Eric Reveno and take part in extended weight training. Pastner said that he is treating the seasons for both like a redshirt season, which he did for Wright and former team members Evan Cole and Sylvester Ogbonda in 2018, even though they weren’t actually redshirting.

“And during a redshirt year, you’re going to do more lifting, more individual skill instructions,” Pastner said. “You’re going to do other stuff, even leading up to game days, because you’re not concerned about their stamina with their legs or anything.”

It won’t preclude either from being available. It’s conceivable that Pastner could call upon either if the Jackets are getting severely outrebounded, for example. Further, it’s possible one or both could develop enough in coming weeks to warrant taking them off the quasi-redshirt plan.

“Our focus is to continue to get them better, so when that time happens, they’ll be even more ready than before,” Pastner said.

But, in the present, Tech has a lineup that, in at least two games, looks like it can be formidable. While not the norm for Pastner and Tech, the Jackets hardly are exploring new ground with a guard-heavy lineup. But it’s possible that this orientation might be the best for the Jackets anyway, given that it’s their strength, particularly with guards Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe, but also in Bubba Parham and Usher.

They’re skilled, high on energy and fast up and down the floor, but they’ve also bought into Pastner’s emphasis on guard rebounding, which helps overcome size limitations.

Tech held Kentucky to 44.9% field-goal shooting and Nebraska 37.7%. The Jackets were outrebounded in both games, but also were plus-22 in turnover margin as they piled up 23 steals. Entering Monday’s games, Tech was tied for 18th in Division I with 10 steals per game.

“I would say an advantage for us is we’re fast-paced and able to get downhill a lot and having those bigger guys try to guard our smaller guys, it’s going to be an advantage,” Devoe said. “We’ve just got to bring a lot of our energy. The same way we played against Kentucky and the same way we played against Nebraska on the defensive end, we have to do the same thing throughout every single game.”

One of the many aphorisms that Pastner likes to repeat is that college basketball is a guard’s game. Whether he wanted it, Pastner is living by it now.

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