Rigorous practices precede Georgia Tech’s matchup with No. 13 Virginia

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Once Georgia Tech’s 79-66 home loss to Clemson on Dec. 21 was over, coach Josh Pastner convened a late-night staff meeting to dissect the team’s play, particularly its defense.

Still discontented, he returned to his car. And stayed there.

“I slept in the car in the parking lot afterwards,” Pastner said Friday. “I was just disgusted in our defense.”

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Pastner said he slept in his car in the Peters Parking Deck, just north of Bobby Dodd Stadium, and returned home only at sunrise. (It was a long night in his Honda Pilot. Sunrise in Atlanta on the 22nd, the day after the winter solstice, was 7:38 a.m.)

“Thankfully the (Georgia Tech police), they let me stay in there in the parking lot,” Pastner said.

Pastner since has endeavored to address his team’s play in a more constructive manner. When the Yellow Jackets face No. 13 Virginia at noon Saturday at McCamish Pavilion, the Cavaliers will encounter a team that has been driven through intense practices since its return from Christmas break to address its various shortcomings.

“There’s no school, so we really have time to hone in our basketball and lock in on our controllables and what we can do to improve, so it’s been very good for us,” guard Kyle Sturdivant said.

Defensive play has been at the core of the practice sessions, particularly the team’s play in the paint. Clemson scored 48 points in the lane against the Jackets, tied for their most allowed this season. It wasn’t only a function of the Jackets’ lack of size in the post. Pastner also was not happy with his team’s inability to stay in front of Clemson players driving to the basket.

“I felt maybe it’s not as much strategy and scheme as we didn’t have the effort that we demand,” Pastner said.

Defensive rebounding has been another weak spot. The Jackets ranked 323rd in Division I on Friday in defensive rebounding percentage (KenPom). Pastner suggested an alteration to Tech’s defensive principles in order to tend to interior defense, which likely would affect the one thing that the Jackets do really well – guard the 3-point shot.

“Maybe we’ve got to shrink (the defense) a little more, and if they do make 3′s, I don’t want them, but maybe not be so spread out in some certain areas,” Pastner said.

It would be a significant trade for Pastner, as the defense of the 3-point arc has been a top priority in his seven seasons at Tech. The Jackets ranked sixth in Division I in 3-point field-goal defense as of Friday (26.3%). Tech has ranked in the top 15 nationally in the category in two other seasons.

The work on defense that Tech has put in this week can help the Jackets solve their offensive issues, which are no less glaring.

“This week has been very good for us, just cleaning up everything,” Sturdivant said. “But defensively, guarding, taking personal pride in our matchups and our slides and just having our defense create our offense.”

With Tech’s 3-point shooting thus far having fallen far below expectations, Pastner also used this week’s practice to jump-start the transition game, opportunities that typically originate with defensive stops.

Another focus was cutting without the ball on offense, specifically doing so with more acceleration, to create backdoor layups out of the team’s Princeton offense. As the 3-point shooting hasn’t been a threat, defenses have been more attentive to the Jackets’ cuts to the basket, bumping players on their path to the goal.

“We just have to play with more of a purpose, if that makes sense,” Sturdivant said. “Each of our actions, we have to go hard from the start to the finish.”

If they can be a highly improved version Saturday, stopping drives to the basket, rebounding well and getting out on the break, the Jackets might have a shot at upsetting the Cavaliers. Virginia is defending with its usual high level of efficiency, doesn’t turn the ball over often and gets to the free-throw line a lot – 24.1 times per game. Tech is averaging 17 attempts per game and is making 70.1% of its tries, 14th in the ACC before Friday’s games.

Virginia remains the lone ACC team that Pastner has yet to defeat. Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett is 8-0 against Pastner at Tech and 16-2 overall. At 325-119 in 14 seasons in Charlottesville, Bennett is one win shy of matching Terry Holland for career wins at Virginia.

It likely will require the Jackets’ best performance of the season to prevent Bennett from tying Holland at McCamish Pavilion.