Georgia Tech’s play markedly better, but it’s late in the season

Georgia Tech guard Kyle Sturdivant (1) tries to get past Louisville guard El Ellis (3) during the first half in Louisville, Ky., Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech guard Kyle Sturdivant (1) tries to get past Louisville guard El Ellis (3) during the first half in Louisville, Ky., Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

As is his wont, if he has said it once, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner has said it many times. Based on what he saw in summer and preseason workouts and private scrimmages, he thought his team would be better at 3-point shooting. (He brought up this observation mostly as the Yellow Jackets missed the mark as they flailed through their nine-game losing streak.)

It has taken awhile, and it almost certainly is too late to make a difference in the outcome of the season, but he may have been right. In the Jackets’ past five ACC games, Tech shooters have made 38.6% of their 3-point shots (44-for-114). The league’s top 3-point shooting team in ACC play – Miami – has made 37.9% of its shots. In the Jackets’ first 12 ACC games, Tech made 29.7%.

“We’ve gotten better,” Pastner said Thursday.

Tech, which plays its final home game Saturday against Louisville (2 p.m., Bally Sports South), has improved in other statistical categories. After allowing opponents to shoot 47.7% from the field in the first 12 ACC games, the Jackets have cut the rate to 42.9% in the past five. Only four teams have had a better rate over the course of league play.

After scuffling for 61.2 points per game in the first 12 games, Tech has pumped out 69.8 points per game in the past five. After Pitt edged the Jackets 76-68 on Tuesday to stay in the hunt for the ACC regular-season title, Panthers coach Jeff Capel said he thought the Jackets were playing as well as any team in the league.

“I just have so much respect for Josh and his staff that it’s been a tough year, but he’s continued to get those guys to fight,” Capel said to media after the game. “They play a style that’s difficult to prepare for because the zones are just different. They have length. Certainly, since they’ve gone smaller, they’ve played a little bit faster. They’ve shot the ball way better. So I knew they would be a different team than the team we played earlier in the season (a 71-60 Pitt win at McCamish Pavilion).”

The improvement is a credit to Pastner and his staff and to players who have continued to play hard and unselfishly. The outlook was quite grim after Tech (11-17, 3-14 ACC) was pummeled repeatedly throughout its nine-game losing streak, with seven of the defeats by double digits. The uptick has happened even as guard Deivon Smith has missed the past three games (including Saturday’s win over Division II Florida Tech) with an ankle injury. With guard Tristan Maxwell also out, Pastner relied almost entirely on six players against Pitt and still nearly claimed a road win over a team in NCAA Tournament contention.

“I think it’s just a testament to our character, how much we truly do care about each other,” guard Kyle Sturdivant said. “It’s easy, the cliché thing to say about, ‘My brother, my brother,’ but we really feel that way. We look out for each other on and off the court. I think that’s what you’re seeing now.”

Part of the explanation for the surge is that guard Lance Terry and forward Ja’von Franklin – two transfers in their first season with the team – have gained familiarity with Tech’s schemes. Perhaps part is that the Jackets played below their capability early in the ACC schedule and have now found a groove. Guards Miles Kelly and Deebo Coleman have come through with big games.

“It seems like this season went by so fast, and we’ve grown so much,” Sturdivant said. “And I just really want us to capitalize on the opportunities we have left.”

What the improvement ultimately means is difficult to know, particularly pertaining to Pastner’s job status. While Tech has won two of its past four ACC games and come close to pulling road upsets over teams chasing postseason berths (Pitt and Wake Forest), the Jackets remain in 13th place in the ACC. With three games remaining (Saturday’s game against Louisville and then road games at Syracuse and Boston College), they can do no better than 11th and can also finish in last, which is where Tech was projected to finish before the season.

All that remains are the final three regular-season games and the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C. It’s a bit too late to turn the season around.

“A lot of ups and downs this year, but we can only be judged on our effort and what we can control,” Sturdivant said. “That’s what I want to see from me and the rest of my teammates, that we just didn’t quit.”

On Saturday, Franklin and walk-on guard Coleman Boyd will be honored on Senior Day. Sturdivant, Terry and center Rodney Howard are seniors eligibility-wise, but could return to use a fifth season of eligibility provided by the NCAA because of COVID-19. They will not take part in ceremonies, Pastner said. Sturdivant said he is undecided on his plans.

“Honestly, I haven’t thought that far ahead,” Sturdivant said. “I just want to continue to be in the present moment and help my team win right now.”