Looking ahead to Georgia Tech's Tuesday night matchup vs. Pitt at McCamish Pavilion at 9 p.m.. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU. The game is being marketed as a gold-out.
A sweet senior season for Corey Heyward
A year ago, Georgia Tech guard Corey Heyward had the sort of season that often makes players transfer, or at least get bitter. After two seasons as a backup getting fairly regular minutes and an occasional start, Heyward was relegated to the end of the bench. With graduate transfer Adam Smith and Marcus Georges-Hunt’s move to point guard grabbing guard minutes, he played a total of 22 minutes for the entire season, appearing in eight games.
After the season, Heyward had an opportunity to finish up his degree work and play his final season elsewhere as a graduate transfer. He said he even recalled a conversation with then-coach Brian Gregory after the final game of last season that that might have been his final game.
“But I honestly felt like, in my heart, it wasn’t my last time at Tech,” Heyward said. “I wanted to go into the year knowing I have a senior night and so, no, regardless of the coaching change, I was going to stay at Tech and work it out.”
There’s no telling what would have happened had he left, but Heyward doesn’t regret his choice. Heyward has appeared in all 29 games, starting 17, including the past 10. A defensive specialist, Heyward has had an undeniable role in the team’s unexpected success. He'll be one of six Tech seniors to be honored before the Pitt game as part of senior night festivities.
“I think I’ve been fortunate and lucky enough to get the opportunities that I have been (given) on and off the court to do some of the things I’ve done,” Heyward said. “So I want to thank coach (Josh) Pastner and his staff and also my teammates to allow me to do that.”
Last season was hard, Heyward acknowledged, but perhaps not as aggravating as it might have been for some. Heyward handled his scout-team role with grace and understood that part of his spot on the team was being ready to play.
“Some guys don’t understand it’s a long season,” he said. “You always have to be ready, and I’ve been fortunate and thankful to have parents as well as peers to kind of like mentor me with that and always stay ready.”
Indeed, this season, after starting seven games in a row in the non-conference schedule, his minutes were drastically cut back. But Pastner brought him back into the starting lineup for the Florida State game to boost the team's defensive strength. In his second game, against Notre Dame, the Jackets played more man-to-man defense than usual, and Heyward hounded Irish guard Steve Vasturia into what coach Mike Brey called probably Vasturia’s poorest in two years .
Heyward didn’t score, but in 38 minutes he also never turned the ball over and had three rebounds, two steals and one assist. He called it the best game of his career.
“Coach Pastner always says that the minutes are there,” Heyward said. “You have to earn them. What I do best is do the right thing, embrace my role, and luckily enough, I’ve been doing that so far. It hasn’t been working out with the win column, but we’ll get back on track, especially (Tuesday’s) game.”
Heyward is far from a star player. He is limited offensively. His quickness is not ideal. When Pastner told him, Josh Heath and Justin Moore that they had to be game managers – their job wasn’t to win the game, but just to not lose it – Heyward (and Heath and Moore) had the humility to accept that role.
He gives effort, makes hustle plays on defense and is O.K. with taking one or two shots a game. It’s been enough to earn a starting role on a team on the NCAA tournament bubble.
“Corey’s really overachieved, there’s no question about it,” Pastner said. “He’s just sound and does his job.”
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It’s been a rough ride for coach Kevin Stallings in his first season in place of Jamie Dixon, who left for TCU at the end of last season. (Side note: Stallings’ departure from Vanderbilt created an opening that was ultimately filled by Bryce Drew, who was the preferred candidate of many Tech fans to replace Brian Gregory. This is even less relevant, but a funny memory. I went up to Nashville for Drew’s introductory news conference to ask him about the Tech job, and my presence - the session was streamed online, and reporters were asked to identify themselves before asking a question - apparently aggravated at least one Vanderbilt fan, who wrote in a tweet that “it felt like a jilted lover showing up to an ex’s wedding to interrupt the ceremony.”)
Anyway, Pitt is 16-15 overall and 5-13 in the ACC. The Panthers lost eight league games in a row at one point, five by eight points or less. Interestingly, Pitt’s RPI ranking (66) is way better than Tech’s (96), I think largely on the basis of a much stronger nonconference schedule. The Panthers don’t defend particularly well (in league games, they’re 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency; Tech is second) and they're not great at protecting the defensive glass. That’s an area that Tech has not done well in late (offensive rebounding) in part because Pastner has not sent players as hard to the glass in order to be better prepared to defend in transition.
Pitt relies heavily on the 3-pointer, so Tech will have to be intentional about challenging Jamel Artis (40.2 percent shooter from 3-point range) and Cameron Johnson (42.4 percent).
What it means
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Tech as the first team in “last four out,” meaning that the Jackets are still quite alive to get into the field of 68, in his opinion. It is clear, it should be noted, that this isn’t much of a year for bubble teams.
Consider the other last four out teams – Wake Forest, Rhode Island and Georgia. The Demon Deacons are 16-12 and are 1-9 against RPI top-50 teams. Rhode Island actually seems like it should be in. The Rams are 19-9, 7-6 away from home and are 2-3 against RPI top-50 teams. Georgia is 16-12 (17-12 if you include a Division II win – sound familiar?) and 8-8 in the SEC. The Bulldogs are 1-7 against RPI top-50 teams. (Tech is 4-7, including 4-4 against the top 25) There is a school of thought that maybe more mid-major teams ought to earn at-large bids than middling power-conference teams, and this year would be a prime year for it.
All that to say, Tech would still seem to be alive, particularly if it can finish the regular season with a win Tuesday night and a win at Syracuse.
(Interesting to note: Vanderbilt is among the “last four in.” It would make for an intriguing matchup if Vanderbilt and Tech ended up playing each other in a “First Four” game in Dayton. Bryce Drew vs. Josh Pastner in Brian Gregory’s old gym in the Jilted Lover Classic.
This is a quote I got from last week’s ACC coaches teleconference from Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams when I was reporting the story about the league’s coaches singing the Jackets’ praises (which preceded losses to N.C. State and Notre Dame. Timing is everything). He was talking about guard Josh Heath.
“I think coach Heath’s son (Heath’s father is Boston College assistant Stan Heath) – I told coach, ‘I don’t think he’s their best player, but he maybe their most important player,’ because I think he keeps them in a groove. I think he kind of understands what Josh (Pastner) wants. They don’t get out of balance too much. They’re constantly changing defensively. They run two core offensive concepts. I think Heath has a really good vibe on ‘This is what we need to do now.’”