Josh Pastner ‘misevaluated’ team in 0-2 start; Kentucky next

Credit: ACC

Tech is 0-2 for the first time since the 1974-75 season, following a disastrous night from behind the arc in an 83-73 defeat.

Credit: ACC

Josh Pastner recognized that he was taking a significant risk when he chose to practice without contact to try to avoid a team-wide two-week quarantine in the event of a positive COVID-19 test.

It may have helped keep Georgia Tech players safe, as the Yellow Jackets played their first two games as scheduled while more than 100 games have been canceled or postponed. However, the accompanying risk was quite real. The Jackets lost to Georgia State and Mercer to open the season, and now face No. 20 Kentucky at 5 p.m. Sunday at State Farm Arena trying to play catch-up.

“I did everything what I felt was best at that time, to avoid any shutdown,” Pastner said. “Which we did: We avoided the shutdown. The issue was, it wasn’t good for game preparation.”

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In the midst of the institute’s final-exam period, Pastner put the team through a series of double-practice days this week, heavy on contact. Pastner likened it to a second preseason.

“Since we missed a lot of (contact) practice, I’m trying to get a lot in right now this week, and try to use all our time during winter break to really take advantage of contact practices,” he said.

The ACC’s adoption of proximity-measuring technology for practices and games has given Pastner the peace of mind to have contact in practice.

Before the season, he made the determination not to have contact in practice because the NCAA’s COVID-19 guidance for basketball is that if a player or “inner-bubble” staff member tests positive, the entire team should quarantine for two weeks. The technology, however, can identify which players or staff have had high-risk proximity to that person, enabling medical personnel to quarantine only those people and not the entire team.

Pastner’s hope was that, with a veteran team, it would be more capable of preparing without contact practices than a younger team.

Pastner also said that the lack of contact practices, along with not being able to scrimmage other teams or play exhibition games by NCAA decree, gave him a false sense of his roster.

“It was based on shooting drills and the way we shot it and the way our guards were,” he said. “I thought one thing, but not having those scrimmages and exhibitions and having those contact practices, I misevaluated on what was best for our team. Great news is I caught it early, so we’ve got to make the necessary adjustments and changes that need to be made.”

Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado confers with head coach Josh Pastner during the season opener loss against Georgia State in a NCAA college basketball game in Atlanta on Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020, in Atlanta.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado confers with head coach Josh Pastner during the season opener loss against Georgia State in a NCAA college basketball game in Atlanta on Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Against the Panthers and Bears, the Jackets were uncharacteristically loose on defense and looked disjointed on offense. Georgia State and Mercer shot 46.8% from the field, well above Tech opponents’ rate last season, 39.9%. At the other end, one of Pastner’s favorite metrics – assists per field goal, an indicator of ball movement – reflected the team’s stagnant play.

Tech assisted on 43.8% of its field goals in the first two games, well below the 54.4% it posted last season.

Pastner said there were three things about his team that he had miscalculated before the Jackets played their first two games. One was the impact of the loss of James Banks, the two-time ACC all-defensive team center. In the first two games, Pastner started Rodney Howard, the transfer from Georgia, in the post, but he has played a total of 22 minutes with one blocked shot while Pastner’s two post-player backups, freshmen Saba Gigiberia and Jordan Meka, have combined for 13 minutes with no blocks. Not having a full set of contact practices in the preseason undoubtedly has been a factor in their readiness.

“I knew there was going to be a little gap (losing Banks), but I didn’t realize how big of a gap that was,” Pastner said.

His plan to space the floor and depend on guards Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe to produce by driving to the basket hasn’t worked, either. The two have combined for 37.5 points per game, but that includes the extra minutes played in the four-overtime loss to Georgia State. Both are shooting below 40% from the field. On offense, players have seemed disconnected from each other.

“I thought, OK, let’s just space it, keep it spaced and let those guys just drive it,” Pastner said. “That wasn’t best for us. That’s not on them. That’s on me.”

Georgia Tech guard Bubba Parham (3) brings the ball upcourt in the first half of a NCAA college basketball game at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Friday, November 27, 2020. Mercer won 83-73 over Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech guard Bubba Parham (3) brings the ball upcourt in the first half of a NCAA college basketball game at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Friday, November 27, 2020. Mercer won 83-73 over Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Lastly, and most important, Pastner had counted on players being able to give the effort and energy to play the sort of defense that has characterized his team’s in his four seasons without practicing it. Pastner is a fervent believer in the idea that a team’s practice habits are revealed, better and worse, in games. But he had hoped that, with a veteran team, players could survive on being shown game video and having Pastner talk them through the game plan.

“I assumed because we are older, Hey, we understood what it takes to be this elite defensive team we’ve been,” Pastner said. “And I assumed wrong. We needed the contact, we needed to drill stuff that we do. We needed the body-to-body, the face-to-face contact in order to create that tension so we could be who we’ve been defensively.”

Alvarado said that, in the first two games, the Jackets weren’t gritty and tough enough, traits that define him as a player.

“We know we’re better than that,” Alvarado said. “We spoke to each other, and we knew we messed up. We just said we’re going to try to forget about it and play great on Sunday.”

The talented Wildcats have been replenished by the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, including star guard Brandon Boston from Norcross. Kentucky is an unlikely 1-2, including losses to Richmond and No. 5 Kansas. Regardless, the Wildcats are not the ideal opponent for Tech to avoid the team’s first 0-3 start since the 1973-74 season, coach Dwane Morrison’s first.

It will be Tech’s first appearance at State Farm Arena since the 2011-12 season, when the Jackets played home games and one ACC tournament game there (then known as Philips Arena) as McCamish Pavilion was being built.

“I told (the team), ‘Hey, man, just don’t forget how it feels to lose,’” Alvarado said. “‘Let’s go in there, play hard against Kentucky. No matter what, let’s just get better from what we played those two games.’”

The game is the back half of a home-and-home with the Wildcats and also part of Holiday Hoopsgiving, an event that has been a high-profile high-school event in years past that has now branched out to the college level. After Sunday’s game, State Farm Arena will host four games Dec. 12 – Clemson-Alabama, Mississippi State-Dayton, LSU-South Florida and Auburn-Memphis.

Tickets are not being sold for any of the games.

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