How Jackets look to Tech great Brian Oliver as crucial stretch begins

Like just about all Georgia Tech fans following the Yellow Jackets’ season, Brian Oliver asks the same unanswerable question about the team as it heads into the final four games of the regular season.

“This is a team that I definitely think can do damage in the ACC tournament,” the Tech legend told the AJC Monday. “But you wonder now, with how many games are remaining and whether they’re going to be able to play them, will it be enough to get into the (NCAA) tournament?”

Oliver is uncertain despite his informed perspective, as he calls ACC games for Raycom Sports/Fox Sports South. He called the action Saturday at the Watsco Center in Coral Gables, Fla., when the Jackets obliterated Miami 87-60, the largest margin of victory in an ACC road game in team history.

This much is clear, though – the Jackets’ road game Tuesday night at No. 16 Virginia Tech is of high importance. Because Georgia Tech’s NCAA tournament résumé could really use a road win over a likely tournament team and the game at Cassell Coliseum is the only such opportunity remaining of the Jackets’ remaining four regular-season games, this is probably Georgia Tech’s biggest game of the season and arguably the most urgent of coach Josh Pastner’s five-season tenure.

Said Oliver, “I think that (Tuesday’s) game is critical for them.”

While the Jackets’ record (11-8 overall, 7-6 ACC) is not ideal for a team in its fifth season with its head coach, Oliver likes what he has seen.

“I think that this team has proven that, when they can come out and use their energy defensively to get stops, and if you’ve got two of the three in (Jose) Alvarado, (Michael) Devoe and (Moses) Wright playing well, that puts them in a position where they can beat most teams in the league,” Oliver said.

He noted Tech’s wins over Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina, all teams projected to be in the tournament field. The Seminoles, whom Tech beat 76-65 on Jan. 30, may well be the strongest team in the conference.

“The wins I have seen for Georgia Tech, it’s not like they’ve won it by accident,” he said.

Oliver bemoaned road losses to No. 15 Virginia and Duke, games in which the Jackets lost by faltering in the final minutes, and Clemson, when Alvarado missed a pair of free throws in the final seconds and the Tigers won on a banked-in 3-pointer.

And, the team’s albatross, season-opening losses to Georgia State and Mercer, when Tech came in unprepared after Pastner’s decision to limit contact in preseason practices in order to limit the risk of spread of COVID-19. Just with those two games and the Clemson result flipped from losses to wins, Tech would be 14-5 overall and 8-5 in the ACC.

“Are you trying to tell me 14-5 and 8-5 in the league’s not an NCAA team?” Oliver asked.

Because of the circumstances of the season – he called it “wacky” and “crazy” – Oliver won’t hold making the NCAA tournament as a black-and-white measuring stick for Pastner and his team.

“I’m a college basketball fan, I love Georgia Tech and I’m honest,” Oliver said. “And, yes, we need to get back to the tournament. And I really thought, even just talking with Josh last year and this year, this was a more veteran ballclub. And if you take away the pandemic and all of the games being canceled and postponed, I really feel like it’s a different type of outcome. But, still, I think that there is a huge opportunity there because of the games that are left and the way the team is playing now.”

He noted that the ACC’s schedule, which is already unbalanced in that teams normally play six teams home-and-home and eight teams once in a season, has been made even more so this year because of the number of games that have been postponed.

For example, the Jackets have played four games against the first- and second-place teams in the conference, Florida State and Virginia, and will likely play only one game against the bottom two teams, Miami and Boston College. Tech was to play the Eagles last week – two days after coach Jim Christian was fired – but the game was postponed due to COVID-19 issues. Chances of a makeup game seem remote.

On the other hand, Syracuse, another team jockeying with Tech for ACC tournament seeding and ultimately a spot in the NCAA tournament – has it nearly reversed – one game against Virginia and Florida State and three against Boston College and Miami.

“That Boston College game, that’s a game that if they play that, chances are, they win that,” Oliver said. “That’s one more win in their column. They’ve had games that have been cancelled, and here’s the thing: You have other teams that are ahead of them who are getting games canceled that could have been losses.”

That said, Oliver believes that the Jackets still have a way into the NCAA tournament. A 3-1 finish over the final four games of the regular season – after Virginia Tech, the Jackets are scheduled to be at home against Syracuse and Duke before finishing at Wake Forest – would lift the Jackets to 14-9. Of similar importance, it would likely improve Tech’s seeding for the ACC tournament. The Jackets were in ninth place before Monday’s Duke-Syracuse game. The higher Tech is seeded, the better its chances of picking up more wins in the conference tournament.

Oliver asserted that if the Jackets can win three of the last four and win one or two games at the ACC tournament – two wins would put them at 16-10 – he believes they’ll have proven themselves worthy of an NCAA invitation, the team’s first since 2010.

“If Georgia Tech takes care of their business, which I think they can, that still gives them an opportunity to make the tournament,” Oliver said.

As for Tuesday’s game, Georgia Tech may be the beneficiary of some fortune. Virginia Tech has not played since Feb. 6. Since then, the Hokies have had two games postponed because of opponents’ COVID-19 issues and two because of their own.

Hokies coach Mike Young said Monday that he has had “a couple of days” when all available players were able to practice together. Also, the availability of guards Tyrece Radford (11.1 points per game) and Jalen Cone (9.2 ppg) is uncertain, Radford because of a suspension related to a DUI arrest and guilty plea and Cone because of an ankle injury. Oliver called Radford the Hokies’ “alpha.”

This year, ACC teams that are coming off a break of 10 days or more are actually 7-6 against league competition. Some teams have handled it better than others, obviously. Georgia Tech earned one of its biggest wins of the season returning from its 17-day hiatus when the Jackets drilled Clemson 83-65 on Jan. 20.

Florida State won both its games coming off its breaks of 15 and 14 days. On the other hand, Clemson lost by 35 to Virginia in its return game, and Louisville was throttled 99-54 on Saturday after the Cardinals had had a 19-day layoff.

Louisville coach Chris Mack spoke of the challenge of players returning to health, the drop in conditioning from not playing games and the lack of continuity in practice as players may be quarantined and not able to practice in a group.

“You always feel like you take one step forward and you take two steps back when you go through a pause, even if it’s for a few days,” he said.

Pastner said Monday that he expected to have all rotational players available against Virginia Tech.

“This is a big stretch, no doubt about it,” he said.