How Georgia Tech has ended up in last place in ACC

When Georgia Tech plays Clayton State on Sunday afternoon, the Yellow Jackets will be in a place uncustomary for defending ACC champions – last place in the league. The last time a team won the ACC title one year and finished in last place the next was 1977, when Virginia managed that odious feat.

“Just not playing well right now, and that falls on me,” coach Josh Pastner said after his team’s 80-64 home loss to Wake Forest. “I’ve got to do a better job.”

It was expected that the Jackets would take a step back this season, but this has been a drop in excess of most expectations. Tech was picked to finish 10th in the ACC’s preseason media poll, and that’s a survey that has typically taken a dim view of the Jackets’ prospects.

How did the Jackets find themselves at 7-10 overall and 1-6 in the ACC – their worst overall record after 17 games since the 2001-02 season (Paul Hewitt’s second season) and their worst conference record after seven games since the 2014-15 season (Brian Gregory’s fifth) – and at the bottom of the league standings?

Consider five explanations:

1. Missing the two stars

Obviously, the Jackets miss Moses Wright, the ACC player of the year, and Jose Alvarado, the ACC defensive player of the year, for any number of reasons. The two were both do-it-all players for the Jackets, after all.

But, beyond the obvious skills that both called upon in Tech’s run to its first ACC title since 1993, Alvarado’s mettle is particularly missed. The Jackets frequently have lost games this season with prolonged scoring lapses, often three minutes or more, allowing runs that have put Tech’s chances of winning in a ditch.

In Wednesday’s loss to Wake Forest, the Jackets scored two baskets in an eight-minute stretch in the second half that enabled the Demon Deacons to seize the game with a 20-5 run. After the game, Pastner conceded that the string of empty possessions had had a demoralizing effect on his team’s effort to get back on defense, giving Wake Forest an even greater boost.

“It was like a double whammy,” Pastner said.

Moments like those call for a player to stem the tide with a basket or free throws, or to compel his teammates to generate a defensive stop, which is the sort of leadership that Alvarado and Wright provided. Their rebounds and steals aside, their example and voices have been missed, too.

2. Missed on transfer portal

Beyond the on-court loss, Pastner has not been hesitant to mention how the circumstances of Alvarado and Wright’s departures also were impactful. Both had stay-or-go decisions to make, and Wright took until late May to decide he was going to stay in the draft, and Alvarado made up his mind on the July 7 deadline day.

Before their decisions were final, Pastner said he was upfront with players he was recruiting out of the transfer portal that he wasn’t sure if either Alvarado or Wright would return and further, that if either did, he would start and command heavy minutes.

Pastner had no issue with the two players’ deliberation but has said that it impacted his ability to recruit out of the transfer portal, although guard Deivon Smith did commit to transfer from Mississippi State before Alvarado made up his mind. By the time Wright and Alvarado made their decisions official, many prospects who might have been interested – particularly given that Tech was coming off its ACC title season – had committed elsewhere.

Perhaps the most notable possibility is Miami point guard Charlie Moore, who has led the Hurricanes’ turnaround season. (When Moore was in high school, he signed with Memphis in November 2015, when Pastner was coach there, before being allowed out of his letter of intent when Pastner left for Tech.) After going into the portal in mid-April from DePaul, Moore committed to Miami days later.

Tech still had options. For instance, Pastner and his staff pursued Texas-El Paso forward Bryson Williams when he went in the portal, and he didn’t commit until June, after Wright made his final decision. Williams even thanked Tech in his announcement that he was committing to Texas Tech, for whom he was averaging 12.6 points and 4.8 rebounds before its game Saturday. Still, Pastner’s options were significantly culled.

3. Shortfall in 2019 signing class

Tech’s shortage of contributors goes back farther than last spring, though. Pastner’s recruiting efforts for the 2018 signing class produced two starters – guard Michael Devoe and forward Khalid Moore. In 2019, however, the recruiting was not nearly as productive. While forward Jordan Usher and guard Bubba Parham did come to Tech in that same cycle as transfers, Tech’s two other signees – guard Asanti Price and forward David Didenko, signed out of high school and junior college, respectively, – have both transferred out.

The Jackets came close and missed on multiple high-school prospects who would be juniors right now and potentially successful examples of Pastner’s “get old and stay old” plan.

Tech’s near-misses include Syracuse’s Jesse Edwards, a 6-foot-11 center who was averaging 12.2 points and 6.7 rebounds before the Orange’s game Saturday against Duke, and Fresno State’s Orlando Robinson, a 7-0 forward who as of Saturday morning ranked in the top five in the Mountain West Conference in scoring and rebounding.

The Jackets’ lack of production out of the post, both on offense and defense, has been a significant factor. Tech’s big men – Rodney Howard, Saba Gigiberia and Jordan Meka – show promise, but still need more time to develop. Having a player like Edwards or Robinson ahead of them likely would be difference-making.

4. Michael Devoe in a slump

Devoe probably is the best scorer that Pastner has had at Tech, a player with long 3-point range and a knack for drawing fouls and working his way to the basket for scores. His skill was on display early this season, but he has slumped of late. It’s not hard to imagine a couple of well-timed 3-point bombs could have shaken the Jackets out of one or more of their scoring funks that have triggered several defeats. Devoe averaged 22.4 points per game in the Jackets’ first nine games, but 15.6 points in the past seven, and his 3-point shooting percentage has fallen more dramatically – 52.8% in the first nine, 22.7% in the past seven.

“He’s getting some good looks,” Pastner said. “They’re not falling right now, but Michael’s such a good shooter that he’s due to get hot, and they will fall.”

5. Lack of experience

Tech has two All-ACC candidates in Devoe and Usher and another senior starter in Moore. The eight teammates who have played the most minutes besides them include two freshmen (guards Deebo Coleman and Miles Kelly), three sophomores who played a combined 49 minutes last season (guard Tristan Maxwell and Gigiberia and Meka), two juniors who played minor roles last season (guard Kyle Sturdivant and Howard) and a sophomore who transferred in (Smith).

KenPom ranks Tech’s experience 166th in Division I (eighth in the ACC) after it was second last season. Not having Parham, whom Pastner said Friday is out for the season because of issues with his knees following preseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus, has been significant.

That said, particularly in the cases of Howard and Sturdivant, the inexperience partially is a result of Pastner’s strategy of giving heavy minutes to his starters and keeping the rotation short. Last season, Alvarado, Wright and Devoe were all in the top nine in the ACC in minutes played per game.

It’s difficult to argue with last season’s results, but Pastner’s tactic regardless has down-the-line repercussions that this season’s team is feeling.