“The character of this year’s team, the character of these young men, to have their back on the ropes multiple times and to fight, kick, scrap, claw, punch their way off the ropes is incredible,” Pastner said.
As the Jackets prepare for the team’s biggest game in more than a decade with their best player – the ACC’s best player – isolated with COVID-19, at least two things are worth considering.
First, Pastner has a future as a thesaurus.
Second, without forward Moses Wright in the lineup, Tech, seeded ninth in its quarter of the bracket, will not submit meekly to eighth-seeded Loyola Chicago on Friday afternoon in their first-round matchup in Indianapolis. But the Jackets’ temperament for never yielding and to close ranks around each other will encounter its most vigorous challenge at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse.
“Sports is like a fight, and do I feel comfortable with these guys having my back in a fight?” forward Jordan Usher told the AJC on Tuesday, before the Wright news broke. “And I think all of these guys, they would step right up. No one’s going to cower in the corner.”
As Pastner has cultivated his “get old and stay old” vision for Tech, the obvious payoff has been the development of Wright, ACC defensive player of the year Jose Alvarado, ACC Tournament MVP Michael Devoe and others. But an ancillary benefit, particularly with the collection that Pastner and his staff assembled, is the bond that has tightened between players over time.
Usher shared a seemingly mundane but charming example of the connection.
“It’s not the, ‘Hey, good job on your dunk,’ it’s the little things,” he said. “When they care about what you’re doing off the court, when they care about your day.”
At practice, Usher said, Alvarado might fetch a water bottle for him to save him the trip.
“It’s just that love and passion that we have for each other,” Usher said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Tactically, the biggest challenge that Tech likely will face in Loyola is Ramblers center Cameron Krutwig, the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year who was named third-team All-American this week. He has averaged 15 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.2. blocks and 1.1 steals per game. ACC Network analyst Dalen Cuff said that Krutwig is a skilled ballhandler, passer and shooter.
“He’s everything you’d want in a modern-day big man minus the athleticism,” Cuff said.
Further, Cuff noted Tech can’t punish Krutwig when Loyola is on defense with Wright’s playmaking ability. Howard, who came to Tech as a transfer from UGA, has seen his role grow in the second half of the season, but is very much a developmental player. So much so, in fact, that Pastner put Howard in the same “redshirt” program that he did for Wright when he was a freshman, focusing more on his skill development and weight training than actual game preparation.
Howard right now is an enforcer-type who boxes out well and can grapple in the post. He runs the floor well. But his offensive game is limited, and he’s not someone that Loyola likely would feel the need to double team, as it might have with Wright. Foul trouble is a real concern, especially when he’ll likely be guarding Loyola’s most productive player. He developed enough this season to play 11 of the past 13 games for a total of 88 minutes. In them, he was called for 17 fouls, or one every 5.2 minutes.
Tech fans can take some hope in the fact that the Jackets have won, maybe not without Wright completely, but with him not contributing much. In the ACC Tournament quarterfinal win over Miami, the Jackets survived 70-66 despite Wright contributing only seven points and six rebounds, fouling out in 25 minutes. When Wright was on the floor, the Jackets were outscored by five. Without him, Tech was plus-9, including a plus-5 for Howard in his season-high 18 minutes.
Tech great Brian Oliver, who calls ACC games for Raycom Sports/Fox Sports South, insisted he wasn’t being a homer with the following analysis: If Tech and Loyola played 10 times, even with Wright out, the Jackets would win six times, he said.
“I call it straight,” Oliver said. “If I didn’t think they had a shot in the dark, I would say, ‘Enjoy the game and enjoy the experience.’ I still feel very confident they can win this game.”
To Oliver, even without Wright, the team’s strength is the problems it presents in its ability to change its defenses, using multiple zone looks and man-to-man. It has created indecision in opponents, and the changes, coupled with Tech’s aggressive play, helped generate 25 turnovers out of Florida State in the ACC title game.
Ball security is not a strength of Loyola’s, and Ramblers coach Porter Moser expressed his concern Wednesday over Tech’s ability to generate turnovers. Tech ranks sixth nationally (first among power-conference schools) in steals per game at 9.2 per game.
“I think that they will come up with a game plan and have guys understand that, ‘Hey, don’t feel like because Moses isn’t playing, that you’ve got to do more and get outside of your zone,’ so to speak, offensively,” he said.
Playing with discipline, moving the ball side to side, limiting turnovers and avoiding excessive one-on-one play will be critical. Tech can get itself in trouble when players focus on creating for themselves, especially against a team like Loyola that defends well.
“You’ve got to make sure that penetrations are penetrations with the understanding that it’s, ‘Pass up a good shot for a great shot,’ not to go one-on-one,” Oliver said.
In Howard’s most important minutes of the season, he checked into the Miami game in the second half after Wright committed his fourth foul with 14:38 to play and the Jackets down 44-43. Over the next eight minutes, Howard wasn’t hugely impactful, but avoided mistakes. Teammates like Khalid Moore and Usher rose to the moment, hitting the glass, coming up with steals and scoring efficiently. Tech forced six turnovers.
By the time Wright checked back in with 6:26 left, the Jackets led 61-56. It helped that Miami was playing its third game in as many days, and Tech its first in a week. Also, any comparisons between the Hurricanes (10-17, No. 149 in NET rankings) and Loyola (22-4, No. 10) are perhaps best made in the broadest terms.
But if the Jackets fancy themselves underdogs, they can take inspiration from the environs Friday. Hinkle Fieldhouse was long the site of the Indiana high school state championships, which until 1997 was a single-class event. The most famous game was the 1954 state title won by tiny Milan High, a school of 161 students. The game became the basis for the movie “Hoosiers.”
In attendance that night?
A freshman from Dale (Ind.) High named Roger Kaiser, who in 1960 became Tech’s first All-American and led the Jackets to their first NCAA tournament.
“I can remember that like it was last month,” Kaiser told the AJC, of the game known as the Milan Miracle.
Kaiser, 82, and Beverly, his wife of 60 years, were planning to make the drive Thursday from their home in Carrollton to be in Hinkle on Friday to watch the Jackets play in the fabled arena. Like many Tech followers, he was miffed about the Jackets’ No. 9 seed.
His advice was sage wisdom for a team now being counted out.
“Just be glad you’re there, and prove it when you get there.”