Going into gauntlet, heavy minutes ahead for Georgia Tech starters

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner sends in instructions in the second half of the Pit Boss Grills Holiday Hoopsgiving against Kentucky Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Georgia Tech won 79-62. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner sends in instructions in the second half of the Pit Boss Grills Holiday Hoopsgiving against Kentucky Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Georgia Tech won 79-62. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Playing its second game in a 48-hour stretch, Georgia Tech faltered in the second half of its loss at Louisville on Monday. Faced with a potentially season-making thicket of games, coach Josh Pastner will stick with his methods as the Yellow Jackets head into a stretch of five games in 11 days, including four games in seven days. The gauntlet starts Saturday night with a home game against surging Notre Dame, winners of four of its past five.

Speaking Friday, Pastner intended to stay with his tried strategy of playing a short rotation and relying heavily on his most productive players. Tech ranks 340th of 347 Division I teams in percentage of minutes played by the bench, according to KenPom.

“We’ll have to dig in,” Pastner said. “It’s a hard stretch, a lot of games, but I do believe we’re in good condition, we’re in good cardiovascular shape, and we’ll have to carry that with us over the next 11 days.”

It will be a significant test of Pastner’s approach. Playing four games in seven days is highly unusual at the college level. The ACC scheduling model normally has teams playing once on the weekend and once midweek. But, because of the conference’s desire to play games postponed by COVID-19 issues, make-up games have been squeezed into the remaining weeks of the schedule.

In the 74-58 loss at Louisville, when the Jackets were outscored 41-31 and outrebounded 34-18 in the second half, Pastner acknowledged that players were “gassed” at game’s end. He said that the team can do better to avoid crashing, such as speeding postgame recovery with cold tubs, but also by addressing mindset.

“The other thing I said was, ‘Hey, you’ve experienced it, guys,’” Pastner said. “‘So you can’t allow the excuse of, ‘Man, I’m beat up, I’m tired,’ infiltrate into your mind. You’re going to have to be bigger and better than that mentally.”

After Saturday’s Notre Dame game, the Jackets will play No. 14 Virginia at home Wednesday, go to Clemson on Feb. 12 and then finish the stretch with home games against Pittsburgh on Feb. 14 and Boston College on Feb. 16. (It won’t be a surprise if the B.C. game is pushed back a day, as the Jackets and Eagles both have space to do so.)

In particular, forward Moses Wright could be in for a grueling week and a half.

In the past three games, Wright has played 118 of a possible 120 minutes, almost unheard of volume for a player his size (6-foot-9 and 230 pounds). It upped his minutes average to 36:35, 24th in Division I after Thursday’s games.

Of the 23 players ahead of him (including guard Jose Alvarado at 23rd at 36:43), 22 are listed as guards, and all but one are 6-5 or shorter. In the top 75, there was only one other 6-9 player and no one taller. Previously, Pastner utilized 6-10 center Ben Lammers the same way.

Wright is playing at an All-ACC level, but backup post players Rodney Howard and Saba Gigiberia aren’t nearly as productive. The temptation to keep Wright on the floor as much as possible is understandable.

Pastner often speaks of coaching possession by possession and substituting by feel more than plan. The Jackets, on the outside of the NCAA tournament picture as they try to get into the tournament for the first time since 2010, are in no position to let any potential win or in-game lead slip away. In an interview with the AJC, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi projected that Tech, at 8-6, needs to win six or seven of its final 10 regular-season games, including at least one significant upset, to get into the picture.

In this critical passage, Pastner, like any coach, undoubtedly will navigate his team through this gauntlet in the way that he feels most comfortable.

“I can play a starting five the entire 40 minutes,” Pastner said. “I could easily do that. I’m not afraid to do that.”

As has become quite clear in his five seasons at Tech, Pastner is not one for adhering to convention for its own sake. His decision to not have contact practices in the preseason to protect against the potential spread of COVID-19 reflected that.

Another is his preference for keeping players in the game in the first half when they’ve drawn two fouls, which goes against the longstanding custom.

In fact, in each of the past two seasons, no Division I team’s players remained in the game a higher percentage of the time in the first half after drawing two fouls than Tech’s, according to KenPom. Tech is second this season.

And perhaps it may work for Wright and the Jackets. Against Louisville, playing for the second time in 48 hours, Wright did most of his damage in the first half. But in the four previous games in which he played 36 minutes or more in each, his production didn’t always adhere to that pattern. And heavy minutes didn’t stop Lammers from being named ACC defensive player of the year as a junior.

And, Pastner can point to the practice previously being used to great effect at Tech. Coaching great Bobby Cremins was renown for keeping a short bench as he won three ACC championships. Over his final 15 seasons, there were 197 instances when he kept a player in for the entire game.

Paul Hewitt never attempted it, Brian Gregory did once. With six this season, Pastner is up to 47 in his fifth season.

“We’ve just got to say, ‘Hey, here’s the schedule in front of us,’” Pastner said. “We’ve got to find a way to get it done.’”

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