Looking for signs of awaited consistency from Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner appears to have figured out his rotation after tinkering with the lineup longer than he typically has. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner appears to have figured out his rotation after tinkering with the lineup longer than he typically has. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

From a record standpoint, there are at least two ways to express how Georgia Tech has fared in ACC play. One, the Yellow Jackets are 3-8 in the league and in 13th place. Two, Tech has split its past four games.

The improved play that coach Josh Pastner assured in November and December was coming didn’t arrive on his expected timeline of the start of the ACC schedule in late December – at least from a record standpoint and arguably from a qualitative perspective also. (The team’s eight-day COVID-19 pause likely was a delaying factor.)

But, the Jackets are doing some things better, namely making 3-point shots and forcing turnovers. Pastner appears to have figured out his rotation after tinkering with the lineup longer than he typically has.

Does that mean winning results will follow – or at least occur more frequently than they did in the first half of the ACC schedule?

“I always say that I might be the wrong person to ask, because it doesn’t matter what it is – I’m going to look at the positive on anything,” Pastner said.

Tech (10-12, 3-8 ACC) will have another opportunity to demonstrate its progress Wednesday night at Miami (16-7, 8-4), which has lost its past two games since beating the Jackets on Jan. 29 at McCamish Pavilion but is still in the chase for the ACC regular-season title and its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2018.

After Tech defeated Clemson 69-64 on Saturday at home, Pastner said that “I can see us starting to turn the corner. Hopefully we can have consistency with that.”

The one thing that the Jackets have been able to count on recently is their ability to create turnovers, often the product of players getting in the right spots to intercept passes or using active hands to knock balls free on the dribble. Entering Tuesday’s games, Tech ranked first in ACC league games in opponent turnovers per game (14.6 per game) and second in steals (9.2). The numbers are even better than the Jackets’ averages in nonconference games, much of it against lesser competition (13.4 turnovers forced, 7.4 steals).

“We’re going to compete. We’re going to get after it,” said Pastner in response to a question about what he can count on from his team each game. “That’s what we do, and the numbers say that by the way we get after it defensively.”

There has been an uptick in defensive activity since a flat effort in an 80-64 home loss to Wake Forest on Jan. 19, particularly in transition defense.

Said freshman guard Miles Kelly of improvements, “Definitely bringing energy every game. How we are in shootaround is a big part of how we play in the game, definitely coming into the game being focused and being locked in.”

The Jackets also have improved their 3-point shooting of late. Since the cleansing 103-53 win over Division II Clayton State on Jan. 23, the Jackets have shot 37.8% from 3-point range (37-for-98) in the four games since. In ACC play, they had shot 31.1% (46-for-148) before that.

Kelly in particular was aided by the game against the Lakers. After making two of three 3-pointers in that game, he’s 6-for-13 from 3-point range. Before the Clayton State game, he had made five of 30 3-point attempts.

“It was definitely big,” Kelly said of the Clayton State game. “I got to play a lot of minutes, and then I hit a couple shots in the game also, so that allowed me to get my confidence back under me.”

However improved some elements of Tech’s game may be, though, the Jackets likely will be fighting uphill if they can’t figure out how to effectively utilize their post players. In no small part because post players Rodney Howard, Jordan Meka and Saba Gigiberia have not been productive on offense, Pastner often has favored the offensive efficiency of a smaller lineup and accepted with it the vulnerability that grouping has created on defense. In league games, the Jackets are last in two-point field-goal percentage defense (54.9%).

This season, Tech is 1-7 (all but one of the games against ACC opponents) when opponents shoot 55% or better inside the arc and 9-5 (2-2 in ACC games) when the Jackets hold teams under that threshold. Clemson shot just under it, 52.9%, in Tech’s win Saturday.

“Their defense led us to scoring on offense because we were able to get stops,” Pastner said of Meka and Howard. “Us having an interior presence defensively to hold the fort down in the paint, it helped us to get stops.”

While Tech often has been ineffective on offense, too – in ACC play, the Jackets were last in offensive efficiency (KenPom) going into Tuesday’s games – Pastner said he saw interior defense being a bigger priority, as generating stops can create the easier transition scoring chances that the Jackets need.

To this point, the Jackets seem to have required outlier performances to win in the ACC. Against Boston College, it was a career game from reserve guard Tristan Maxwell (22 points on 7-for-11 shooting from 3-point range). To beat Florida State, the Jackets hit their season high in turnover margin (plus-8) and took advantage of cold shooting from the Seminoles. To defeat Clemson, the Jackets received outsized production from the bench (35 combined points from Deivon Smith, Deebo Coleman and Kelly when the trio had not scored more than 24 points in the previous 10 ACC games) and the Tigers’ errant 3-point shooting.

But if Pastner’s team can continue to force turnovers, make 3-point shots and also ride the scoring of Michael Devoe and Jordan Usher (33.6 points per game combined), perhaps the final nine games of the regular season will bear out the coach’s eternal optimism. Maybe the Jackets are the team that’s split its past four games and can build on that.

“I know we’re getting better,” Pastner said. “I think we’re getting better with some things we’re doing on offense. Our individual players are getting better. That’s been a staple of ours. So our team’s getting better.”