Damon Stoudamire pushes through ups, downs in first season

Georgia Tech head coach Damon Stoudamire reacts to a play during their game against Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum, Tuesday, December. 5, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 76-62. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia Tech head coach Damon Stoudamire reacts to a play during their game against Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum, Tuesday, December. 5, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 76-62. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

You could summarize Damon Stoudamire’s first team at Georgia Tech with two points of data from its Saturday night home loss to Virginia.

One, when Yellow Jackets guard Naithan George hit a step-back jump shot midway through the first half to lift Tech’s lead to 11 points, it was as large a lead as the Jackets had held on the Cavaliers in the teams’ past 11 meetings.

Two, the advantage was for naught. Faltering after that stretch, Tech lost its 11th consecutive game to coach Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers, this time to a team that was far more vulnerable than previous editions.

In short, it looks like Tech is going in the right direction with Stoudamire at the helm. But it may take some time to get there.

Players are learning Stoudamire, who at the same time is learning them while also getting an education in the ACC. Tech’s come-from-ahead loss to the Cavaliers followed its come-from behind victory at Clemson, rallying from nine points down with 1:43 left in regulation to win in double overtime. Stoudamire’s postgame media session Saturday offered a peek into the coach’s heart and mind as he tries to compel his players — on this night, unsuccessfully — to play with consistent focus and relentlessness.

“And I think each and every game, it goes back (to), again, are we going to be happy with a double-overtime win in Clemson and then come back and then do this (Saturday) when we had the opportunity to keep building?” Stoudamire asked. “That’s the thing, and I’ll take the hits because I have to get these guys going. I’ve got to figure that out. That’s part of the process for me in figuring that out.”

Tuesday’s home game against Pitt will offer another opportunity for Stoudamire and his players to show progress.

“(It has) got to mean something to you in your soul,” Stoudamire said. “Because we all have to feel the same way. It can’t be one or two people. We all have to feel the same way.”

When they’ve felt it, they’ve had results to show for it. In the space of five days in late November and early December, the Jackets upset Mississippi State and Duke (ranked 34th and 13th, respectively, by KenPom as of Monday afternoon). But the Jackets also lost five games in a row prior to the win at Clemson, four of which they either led inside the final four minutes of regulation or had a possession to take the lead.

They have at different times not taken care of the ball, not hit the offensive glass hard enough and had defensive lapses. Stoudamire’s summation of the loss to Virginia was that, after taking the 11-point lead, the Jackets abandoned the patience and defensive tenacity that had enabled them to build it.

In Stoudamire’s words, “got a little selfish.” The dooming stroke might have been in the final 1.8 seconds of the first half, with Virginia ahead 31-29. With the ball in their offensive end, the Jackets misplayed the inbounds pass, which bounced to midcourt. With little effort from Tech’s side, Virginia’s Taine Murray won the loose ball and laid it in as time expired.

“I think we only had one person try to get back,” Stoudamire said. “That was pretty much the tale of the game from that point forward.”

That is only half of the story, though. Stoudamire has re-made the roster that he inherited from Josh Pastner. It’s deeper and probably more athletic. And, while they don’t say everything, the wins over Duke and at Clemson made an impression. Tech had lost 16 of its previous 17 to the Blue Devils and, inexplicably, 17 of its previous 18 at Clemson.

“(Stoudamire’s) experience as a head coach at Pacific and then his time in the NBA is very noticeable,” Bennett said Monday on a teleconference. “The spacing on offense, the ball-screen stuff — just good. And they’ve played hard and he’s really involved.”

Stoudamire is clearly pleased with his two starting freshmen, the point guard George (9.3 points per game and a 2.7 assist/turnover rate) and forward Baye Ndongo (12.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per game). Bennett deemed them “excellent.”

As Stoudamire implements an NBA-style scheme that calls on players to read and react based on what they see on the floor, those two have probably been the best at executing it, the coach said Monday on the ACC coaches teleconference.

They showed their craftiness late in the game against Virginia as the Jackets tried to rally. On the right wing, George dumped the ball into the post to Ndongo, who was unable to make headway against Virginia’s forward Jordan Minor. George asked for the ball back and Ndongo came out to set a screen for him. One-on-one with Minor, George drove and, unable to stay with him, Minor was called for a foul. George hit the ensuing free throws.

“Knowing the scouting report, they hedge high and I know that (Minor) is not as fast on his feet,” George said. “That was kind of to cut down time and get a quick bucket (or) draw the foul.”

It’s easy to envision George and Ndongo becoming a dominant pick-and-roll pair in the future, presuming the transfer portal and name, image and likeness deals don’t beckon them elsewhere.

With a record of 9-9 and ranked 122nd in KenPom as of Monday, it doesn’t look like Tech is headed for any sort of postseason barring a stunning turnaround over the final 13 regular-season games.

Perhaps not next year, either. Stoudamire is committed to building his roster with high school recruits as opposed to bringing in transfers.

He needs more players with skill and savvy like Baye and George, NBA aspirants who want to devour scouting reports and fight through screens whether they’re ahead by 10 points or down by 10. And Stoudamire has to figure out how to develop the willingness to do so.

“That’s the thing that I’ve been fighting and trying to get across to our guys,” he said. “That, to me, is why we, collectively, have had our moments but we’ve consistently been inconsistent and that drives me crazy as a coach.”