Hobbled Georgia Tech wins easily over Alabama State

Georgia Tech guard Tristan Maxwell scored a team-high 18 points for the Yellow Jackets in their 96-60 win over Alabama State Dec. 17, 2022 at McCamish Pavilion. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

Georgia Tech guard Tristan Maxwell scored a team-high 18 points for the Yellow Jackets in their 96-60 win over Alabama State Dec. 17, 2022 at McCamish Pavilion. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Almost from the time that guard Tristan Maxwell dropped two 3-pointers in the first two minutes of the game, a lopsided win for Georgia Tech over Alabama State seemed nearly a certainty.

In what ended as a 96-60 win Saturday at McCamish Pavilion, Tech led 14-3 less than four minutes into the game and roared to a 55-20 lead by halftime.

And yet, coach Josh Pastner was vigilant on the sidelines. He yanked guards Miles Kelly and Kyle Sturdivant at separate points in the first half and lit into them for what he perceived as selfish play. He remained on guard for hints of players hunting for stat-padding baskets. His caution was rewarded, not only with the win, but also the manner in which it was achieved.

“We got good shots, played the right way and moved the ball and took care of the ball and played as, the open man’s the go-to man,” Pastner said.

Primarily, that meant movement of the ball, which resulted in 25 assists on the 37 field goals, both season highs. The assist total more than doubled the season average.

The Jackets (7-4) made 13 of 24 3-point attempts, setting season highs for made 3-pointers and 3-point shooting percentage (54.2%). Maxwell, making his first career start as starting guards Deivon Smith (ankle) and Deebo Coleman (Achilles tendon) came off the bench after being limited in practice this week, led with 18 points and 5-for-8 shooting from 3-point range.

“I would say just us moving the ball, kind of getting everybody involved,” said Maxwell, explaining his team’s 3-point proficiency. “We’ve kind of been talking about it over the past month, about having ‘the disease of me,’ and coach (Pastner) has been really big on that and us getting everybody involved because it’s the team’s shot, not our shot.”

The notion of “the disease of me” is credited to Basketball Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley, a perhaps self-explanatory affliction of selfishness. It was Pastner’s diagnosis that the disease plagued the Jackets during their failed trip to Fort Myers, Fla., when they lost to Utah and Marquette in a neutral-site event during Thanksgiving week.

“We didn’t play the right way either game,” Pastner said. “I just didn’t like how we played and how we were. I just felt it creeping in during that time in Fort Myers in just little things.”

Pastner’s diagnosis hasn’t necessarily turned the Jackets into a free-flowing, ball-sharing juggernaut. Since returning from Florida, Tech has defeated North Alabama, Northeastern, Georgia and Alabama State at home and lost on the road to Iowa and North Carolina. However, Pastner contended, the Jackets could well have lost to the Bulldogs had the losses in Fort Myers not compelled him to respond urgently to the patterns of selfish play.

“We’ve got really, really good young men,” Pastner said. “So this isn’t a character thing or anything. This is just part of a team, and things happen as part of a team as teams grow and get better as the year goes. But, sitting in my chair, when you see something, you’ve got to nip it right in the bud.”

Assessment of the Jackets’ dynamic play Saturday also must consider the opponent. Before the game, the Hornets ranked 341st in Division I in scoring defense (79.7 points per game) and 325th in field-goal percentage defense (47.1%). Alabama State (1-9) is in the midst of a wearying non-conference schedule. Before they begin SWAC play, the Hornets are to play 12 games, all away from home. Their lone home game was canceled.

Tech paid Alabama State a $90,000 guarantee to come to McCamish Pavilion with the expectation of an outcome something like what transpired Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 3,798.

Shooting 54.4% from the field and turning the ball over five times (one more than the school record) doesn’t guarantee similar results when the Jackets play Clemson on Wednesday at McCamish.

Regardless, Pastner was encouraged. Tech entered the game shooting 30.3% from 3-point range, 310th in Division I and second to last in the ACC.

“We shot it like I felt we could shoot it all season,” Pastner said.

The team’s assist/made field-goal rate, a statistic that Pastner highly values as it indicates effective ball movement, ranked 295th in Division I (KenPom) before Saturday. Pastner’s goal for the team is to hit 60%, and the team’s rate was 46.1%.

It was a season-high 67.6% against the Hornets. Sturdivant, back in the starting lineup in place of Smith, set career highs in assists (seven) and rebounds (eight) while scoring 13 and turning the ball over only once in 24 minutes.

“I think I was trying to make the right play every time, and when you make the right play every time, that ball just comes back to you,” Sturdivant said.

Six players scored in double figures, forward Jordan Meka scored his first points of the season and 14 players enjoyed playing time. Center Rodney Howard saw his streak of 13 consecutive made field goals end, but still completed a double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds).

Going forward, Tech’s limitations in size and experience remain unchanged. The potential of the team’s primary offensive and defensive schemes has yet to be unlocked because the team is short of the bodies and playmaking skill that make both go.

The Jackets, picked last in the ACC, likely will have to play better than they have to significantly outperform that projection. But perhaps their two games in Fort Myers can turn out to be profitable if they heed their lessons, as they did Saturday.

“I don’t think we have a lot of selfish players,” Sturdivant said. “We have a lot of talented players and sometimes we all feel like, if it’s one-on-one, I can make this shot. But when we paly together, I think we’re really hard to beat.”