NEW YORK — It sounds cruel to say, but Georgia Tech wound up looking pretty much like we thought it would. After losing to Pittsburgh 61-59 in the first round of the ACC Tournament, the Yellow Jackets have an RPI of 105. They’re 84th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. They’re 79th in Dr. Joel Sokol’s LRMC ratings. They’re 94th in ESPN’s basketball power index.
In sum, they’re not an NCAA tournament team. To their lasting credit, there were several moments this season when they looked the part. Then such moments stopped coming. Since beating Notre Dame on Jan. 28, Tech is 4-7. One of those victories was over Division II Tusculum. The Jackets closed by losing four of five, Tuesday’s loss to Pitt canceling the victory over this same Pitt at McCamish Pavilion seven days earlier. And here’s the real stinger, if you will:
Going by Vegas, Tuesday’s result wasn’t an upset. Pitt, which finished where Tech was supposed to finish in the ACC (meaning next-to-last), was favored. The Jackets have won two games away from McCamish. One was at North Carolina State, which fired Mark Gottfried a while ago. The other was at VCU, marking the Rams’ only home loss of the season.
That was Tech in a nutshell — good enough to surprise people, not quite good enough to sustain the surprises. For the thousandth time: In the grand scheme, this season was a roaring success. Tech beat three teams (four if you count VCU) it had no business beating. Josh Pastner was named ACC coach of the year on merit. Still, this bears repeating: In Year 1 under Pastner, Tech is 17-15, having gone 8-10 in league play; this time a year ago, Tech was 19-14, having gone 8-10 in league play.
For his work, Pastner gets a trophy. For his, Brian Gregory got fired. The intent here isn’t to revisit that decision, made by an athletic director now working at Purdue. (Heck, I thought Mike Bobinski should have fired Gregory a year earlier.) Going 8-10 against the ACC was the best Gregory was going to do. Pastner’s first season makes us believe he’s capable of much more.
That said, he needs better players. He admitted as much Tuesday night. He needs shooters. Tech finished last among ACC teams in field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage, next-to-last in free-throw percentage and scoring. These Jackets couldn’t have played harder or guarded better. Pastner took four holdovers who had appeared substandard ACC players under Gregory and one 3-star Gregory signee and rendered this dodgy assemblage the sort of team nobody wanted to play.
Pitt coach Kevin Stallings spoke last night of the “beauty” in the Jackets’ prosaic approach. Tech uglied up games because it had no recourse. After scoring 78 points in the Jan. 25 upset of Florida State, the Jackets broke 70 against ACC opposition only once. They’ve held a halftime lead only one time since beating Notre Dame three days later — against Tusculum, which Pastner scheduled because he feared his team might start the conference season 0-11.
Watching Tuesday’s game, the feeling persisted that Tech’s opponent was, man for man, superior. Still, you thought Tech might just find a way to win. That had to do with Pastner’s defenses. He used all manner of them — man-to-man, 1-3-1 and some other stuff, too — to level the field. Per KenPom’s ratings, Pastner’s team is 270th among 351 Division I teams in offensive efficiency; in defensive efficiency, it’s eighth.
The teams rated ahead of Tech on defense: Virginia, South Carolina, Gonzaga, Florida, West Virginia, Louisville and Cincinnati. All are headed to the NCAA tournament, not one as a double-digit seed. That’s what Pastner did: He took a team that coulda/shoulda gone 10-22 and had it dancing with wolves. Which doesn’t, alas, mean it belongs in the Big Dance.
We saw Tuesday the difference between talent and the relative lack thereof. Pitt has had a terrible season under Vanderbilt export Kevin Stallings, who has been at odds with the players inherited from Jamie Dixon, but some of those players are pretty good. Midway through the second half, Tech’s defense had clamped down on the Panthers to the extent that nearly every possession ended in a bad shot. But then, just after the Jackets took a four-point lead, Pitt up and hit two 3-pointers. That can happen when you play a lot of zone.
Then, after the Jackets overrode a seven-point deficit to forge a tie inside the final four minutes, Pitt’s Jamel Artis hoisted another trey. It looked awful when he let fly — on the night, most of his shots did — but it sailed home. Of the eight 3-pointers Artis tried, this was his only make. Sometimes a defense induces the shot it wants and the darn thing goes in.
Driven by desperation, Tech scored eight points in the final 34 seconds. It had scored 10 over the preceding 10 minutes and 54 seconds, which is where the game was lost. Afterward Pastner spoke of the need to recruit, and that’s where games of the next few years will be won or lost. In a banner year for Georgia high school talent, the Jackets have been shut out on the local front.
They still have a chance at M.J. Walker of Jonesboro, also sought by Kansas, UCLA, Florida State and Maryland. They’re tracking Jordan Tucker of Wheeler, who’s thought to be leaning toward Indiana. (Though the Hoosiers could fire Tom Crean any moment, which could change the dynamics.) Both are, according to Rivals, ranked among the nation’s top 54 players. Tech needs at least one.
The question regarding Pastner is the one that still hangs over Mark Fox at Georgia: Can a Georgia-based coach keep enough good players at home to stock a Top 25 program? Fox hasn’t yet, and he has been in Athens since 2009. Pastner arrived last April and has made a great first impression, but even inspired coaching — as we just saw — cannot carry a team into the ACC’s upper half. Better players are required. Getting better players is part of coaching, too.