The most obvious change has been Pastner’s decision to reinstitute contact practices after the losses to the Panthers and Bears. Pastner made the decision to restrict contact in practice after a positive test in September, before the start of preseason practices, required players and staff to quarantine for 14 days.
“I had to stay at the house,” Pastner said. “There was nothing you could do.”
His fear of another season-wrecking quarantine was the prompt for him to conduct most preseason practices on a non-contact basis. Even when the team did do contact work, Pastner said, it was only on a limited basis.
“(The September quarantine) really made me extremely conservative to avoid a shutdown,” he said. “If that didn’t happen, I probably might have been a little more aggressive with practice, but that changed my thought pattern because we didn’t want to go through that again.”
The end product was the two losses to Georgia State and Mercer. Pastner said Friday that even if proximity-tracking technology had not been made available that has enabled contact tracing to be much more precise, he still would have gone back to contact practices based on the first two games.
“If we didn’t start practicing (with contact), we might have been 0-27,” he said.
Since the loss to Mercer on Nov. 27, the change in Tech’s play, induced by a heavy diet of two-a-day practices, has been unmistakable. The defense has been more aggressive and coordinated. On offense, the Jackets have taken much better care of the ball.
“We’ve been better since then,” Pastner said. “That’s just the facts of it.”
The reason that Pastner wasn’t surprised by the progress was that his guard trio of Jose Alvarado, Michael Devoe and Bubba Parham has played the way they should be playing at this point of their careers. Alvarado is a three-year starter, Devoe a two-year starter and Parham a returnee who logged more than 800 minutes and was a two-year starter at VMI before transferring. It was what Pastner saw as last season ended, when the Jackets won six of their final seven games, giving rise to the belief that this team could be the first to earn an NCAA tournament berth since 2010.
“We have an older team, we’ve just got to keep playing like that,” Devoe said after the win over North Carolina.
In the first two games, the assist/turnover ratio for the three was 20/18. In the six games since, it’s been 58/32.
“I just knew we were going to be better after those two games,” Pastner said. “I don’t know if we would have beaten Georgia State or Mercer if we would have practiced (with contact), but we would have been better suited to have beaten them.”
While there is nothing guaranteed in the remainder of the ACC schedule – multiple league games have been postponed – the uptick in Tech’s play would seem to bode well for the remaining games. Pastner looks at Tech’s chances with typical optimism.
“I think this year, more so than any other year at least since I’ve been in it, and I’d say maybe in the history of the ACC, it is wide open, where anyone can beat anyone, 1-15, home and away,” he said. “Because there is no homecourt (advantage), so that takes that out. So because of that, it’s just a wide-open league. Any early-season prediction or projection just has to be throw out the window.”
Wide open or not, the Jackets still have a lot of work to do, and home-and-homes remain with Virginia and Duke, among other tests. But it seems far more plausible now for Tech to make a run at the tournament than it did a month ago.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do and things to clean up, but we’ve gotten better,” Pastner said.