Year 1 was a freebie. Georgia Tech wasn’t supposed to win 10 games; it won 21 and played for the NIT title. Year 2 was a step backward, ridden with player suspensions and various investigations. Year 3 was a dud, a joyless slog undone in large part by Josh Okogie’s early jump to the NBA. Year 4 was staged under the cloud of a postseason ban, which the Yellow Jackets ended up accepting, which turned out to be a deft move, seeing as how the season ended six days before the NCAA tournament was to begin.
And here Tech is, midway into Year 5 under Josh Pastner, still awaiting its chance to dance. That wait – which spans two coaches, two buyouts and 11 years – is about to end. These Jackets will make the NCAA tournament. Yes, that’s a prediction.
I know, I know. As of Saturday morning, Tech ranked 60th in the NCAA’s NET ratings, 59th in Ken Pomeroy’s table. The Jackets were 7-5, holders of eighth place in the 15-team (and not-at-all vintage) ACC. In no way was that the worksheet of an NCAA team. Things changed Saturday. The Jackets beat Florida State – No. 14 in KenPom, No. 18 in NET – at McCamish Pavilion. The Jackets led by seven at the half. They won 76-65.
This might have been the biggest victory under Pastner, who has been in place since April 2016. It surely was the best-timed. The Jackets were coming off hairbreadth losses at Virginia and Duke – “We should have won both games,” Pastner said, several times, in the wake of the loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium – and were in dire need of a victory over anybody any good.
Florida State, which might have won the 2020 NCAA championship had it been awarded, is again very good. On this day, Tech clearly was better. For the first time under Pastner, the Jackets are better on offense than defense; against FSU, their defense limited the opposition to 26 first-half points, the Seminoles’ lowest yield of the season.
Tech induced Florida State into more first-half turnovers (11) than baskets (10). Eight of those errors came on steals, four by Jose Alvarado, who leads the ACC in that category. Over seven minutes and 25 seconds spanning the halves, FSU managed one point. From six points down, the Jackets surged 10 in front. They would stay in front.
You could tell how much this meant to the home team. Pastner called timeout after barely seven minutes, his team down only four points. This was something approaching a last stand for the Jackets, and maybe for Pastner. Tech is beyond the midpoint of its shortened regular season. Before Saturday, their best victories were over Kentucky and North Carolina, which in most years would mean something. In 2021, neither the Wildcats nor the Tar Heels received even a vote in the latest Associated Press poll.
Lest we forget, Tech opened this season with consecutive home losses to Georgia State and Mercer, neither of which is above .500 in its respective league. A loss here Saturday – with a game at Louisville set for 2 p.m. Monday – could have relegated these Jackets (and their coach) to the land of just-couldn’t-ever-break-through. Instead they won with something approaching ease.
Moses Wright (23 points, eight rebounds, six steals) outplayed all FSU’s many big men. Alvarado (21 points, five assists, six steals) outplayed everybody. Said Alvarado: “It shows how good we are and how good we can be. … We feel like we’re the best team in the conference.”
Then: “In my head, I feel like I’m the best defender in the country.”
Then: “When (Michael Devoe, who scored 19 points) plays like this, I feel like we’re the best team out there.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
We pause here to say … wow, that’s a slew of superlatives from a smallish guard on an 8-5 team. And it is. But Tech at its best was pretty darn good last season, and it’s better now. All the Jackets lacked – well, except for size – is the proof that they can beat an opponent of the first rank. They just found it.
Said Pastner: “We had two games at Virginia and Duke where we just couldn’t get over the hump. We got over the hump today.”
Then: “I love our guys. … Even when we get punched, we always keep coming back.”
It’s still possible for Pastner’s team to mess this up. A loss at Louisville would undo some of the good accomplished Saturday. Virginia and Duke are scheduled to come to McCamish; Tech will need to win at least one of those, maybe both. But beating FSU for the first time since January 2017 marked a step up in class for a program that hasn’t taken a true upward step in more than a decade.
For a while now, Pastner has insisted that Tech could play with anybody. On Saturday, it beat a somebody.