Georgia Tech can shoot for a change but dim NCAA hopes look the same

Credit: ACC

Tech (9-7 overall, 5-5 ACC) adhered closely to its defensive game plan, holding the Cavaliers to their second-lowest scoring output of their season.

Credit: ACC

Georgia Tech men’s basketball coach Josh Pastner’s words after the home loss to Virginia on Wednesday night could have been copied and pasted from so many other defeats.

“We played well enough to win,” Pastner said. “We just missed shots.”

The difference is that, for the first time under Pastner, the Yellow Jackets actually can be expected to make them. After fielding defensively strong teams that struggled to score for four years, Tech finally can shoot. And yet the Jackets are in the familiar February position of scuffling to end an NCAA tournament drought that inexplicably goes back to 2010.

The aesthetics are better for the Jackets. Entering Thursday they ranked 70th among Division I teams in 3-point shooting after finishing 280th or worse in Pastner’s previous four seasons. The results are much the same. The Jackets (9-6, 5-5 ACC) can’t even be considered on the NCAA bubble with eight regular-season games left on the schedule

The Bracket Matrix compiles more than 100 expert forecasts of the NCAA field. At the last update, Andy Katz of NCAA.com was the only pundit to include Tech in the field. He had the Jackets as one of four teams in play-in games. That was before Tech lost to No. 9 Virginia after leading with six minutes to go.

Virginia (14-3, 10-1) is the ACC’s gold standard. Coach Tony Bennett’s program sends players to the NBA and continues tol win with mature and tough teams. This season the Cavaliers are merely very good on defense instead of grinding opponents to dust like usual. But Bennett has fashioned an offense that ranks near the top of the ACC in efficiency.

There’s no shame in the Jackets losing two close games to Virginia. It’s just that they really needed to beat Virginia to bolster their NCAA tournament resume. Tech has been trying to climb into tournament consideration since opening with bad losses to Georgia State and Mercer (the former looks worse after the Panthers started 2-4 in the Sun Belt).

The Jackets mitigated some of that damage by beating No. 17 Florida State two weekends ago. They couldn’t build on it against Louisville and Virginia. Tech lost 64-62 at Virginia in January despite shooting well. The Jackets lost the rematch while missing 17 of 21 3-point tries. It was terrible timing for Tech’s worst 3-point shooting game of the season.

“Their open looks, they made,” Pastner said. “Our open looks, we missed. In the end you can dissect anything you want, it’s a make-or-miss game.”

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner shouts instructions in the second half against Notre Dame Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. Jackets won 82-80. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner shouts instructions in the second half against Notre Dame Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. Jackets won 82-80. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Coaches often say that, and there’s a lot of truth to it. But there are other ways to score if jump shots aren’t connecting. The Jackets are good at collecting steals for extra possessions. They are not good at drawing fouls or scoring on put-backs.

There’s also the option of being so good on defense that bad shooting games aren’t fatal. But Tech’s defense isn’t up to Pastner’s usual standard. The Jackets aren’t apt to bear down and force (or rebound) lots of misses.

Those weaknesses are in part a function of Pastner’s decision to use small lineups. It was the right call with his personnel. Tech’s available big men aren’t yet equipped to play major roles in the ACC. Ben Lammers and James Banks aren’t walking through the McCamish Pavilion doors.

The Jackets have benefited from playing small. They have multiple players on the floor who can disrupt passing lanes on defense and dribble, pass and shoot the ball. The drawback is that Tech gets beat up on the boards and relies heavily on 3-point shooting to score.

“We are going to force teams into turnovers, and we are going to take care of the ball,” Pastner said. “Those are things we do. And also part of our formula is to make 3′s. We are going shoot 3′s, and we’ve got to make them.”

That’s a volatile formula. If the Jackets are forcing turnovers and making shots, they are pretty good. They are in trouble if they can’t do one or the other. Points are hard for Tech when 3′s aren’t plentiful because there isn’t much of a Plan B.

Tech is good enough to occasionally earn quality victories, but not good enough to do so consistently. That’s the profile of an NCAA tournament bubble team. After losing to Virginia, Tech dropped from No. 62 to No. 63 in the NET rankings used by the NCAA tournament selection committee. The defeat didn’t hurt Tech’s standing much but it was a missed chance to significantly improve it.

St. John’s (No. 73) was the lowest-ranked team to earn an at-large bid for the 2019 tourney. The Red Storm were 5-7 in the “Quadrant 1” games that the selection committee considers most impressive. This season the Jackets are 1-5 in Quad 1 games. The victory over FSU qualifies as the good one.

The St. John’s precedent suggests that a team with a relatively weak NET ranking can earn an at-large bid tournament bid with enough good victories. Tech’s problem is that it won’t have many more opportunities to earn them. Only two games left on the schedule currently qualify as Quad 1.

The Jackets will play one of them, at Clemson on Friday, after a short turnaround (Tech blew out the Tigers on Jan. 20). The Jackets play home games against Pitt on Sunday and against Boston College at noon Wednesday. Pastner noted that both Clemson and Pittsburgh will have last played Feb. 6 before facing Tech. COVID-19 postponements have wrecked the ACC schedule.

“We want to play, and so we are thankful and fortunate we get to get on the floor and play,” Pastner said. “We’ve just got to win as many games as we can. Nothing changes with our standard. We want to try to get to the tournament.”

Tech could get the chance to earn quality victories in the ACC tournament. The league plans to follow through on its bad idea to stage the competition in Greensboro. The better plan would be giving NCAA-bound teams time to quarantine before going to Indiana. Conspiratorial-minded folks may notice that, to make the Big Dance, Duke will need the automatic bid or at least a deep conference tourney run.

It’s hard to count on the Jackets doing much in the ACC tournament, where Pastner’s teams are 0-3. That might be even more baffling than Tech’s long NCAA drought. Maybe things would be different for the Jackets in the conference tournament now that they are capable of hot shooting streaks. Or maybe they’ll have a bad shooting game in the opener and leave town without a victory again.

Better for the Jackets to sweep Clemson, start another winning streak and leave little doubt they are worthy of an NCAA tournament team before they even get to Greensboro.

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