The season that started with two player suspensions and a well-circulated picture of Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson floating in a human parasite’s swimming pool in Arizona ended appropriately Tuesday.
Georgia Tech’s basketball season lasted four months. It just seemed like years. A team that makes so much off-court news without the on-court resume shouldn’t expect March to morph into a string of dreams.
“We had a lot of adversity right at the beginning of the season, with the me-and-Josh situation, then players being hurt, then with coach Pastner, then losing (point guard) Jose (Alvarado),” Jackson said Tuesday. “It was just hard.”
In Josh Pastner’s first season, Tech made it to the finale of the NIT. One year later, the Yellow Jackets couldn’t make it past Day 1 of the ACC tournament. They suffered through one of their worst performances in an already miserable-shooting season, starting the game 3-for-17, digging themselves into a 20-point hole and clawing back to within six late, before falling to Boston College 87-77 at the Barclays Center.
So they’re done. Officially this time. A season that coach Josh Pastner never envisioned in his worst personal hell and hopes to never experience again came to its merciful end.
We can debate the seriousness of the “extra benefits” gained by Okogie and Jackson, via the greasy fingertips of Ron Bell, against the backdrop of shoe-company payoffs, AAU shenanigans and an FBI investigation into college basketball’s underworld. We can debate the legitimacy of Bell’s claims against Pastner, which has ignited back-and-forth litigation. And it’s certainly easy to make a case that Pastner did an impressive job navigating his players driven through a difficult season of injuries, off-court distractions and patchwork lineups.
But sometimes, quick endings are just meant to be. Some seasons are just meant to be dropped into a casket.
The Jackets affirmed that against Boston College. The Eagles hadn’t won an ACC tournament game since 2015 – also in the opening game, also against Georgia Tech. Tech’s draw was as good as it could have expected for a 13th seed: consecutive potential winnable games against North Carolina State and Clemson before having to face No. 1 Virginia in the semifinals.
But it couldn’t get a lead on Boston College even once over 40 minutes. The Jackets illogically were still in the game at halftime (36-26), but then missed their first nine shots of the second half.
That conveys an appropriate sense of doom.
Tech buried itself early by settling too often for jump shots instead of looking to feed Ben Lammers, who had keyed wins in their past two games coming into the tournament. As one of the ACC’s worst-shooting teams, this is not brilliant decision-making.
“We were talking about that: stop settling,” Pastner said. “I don’t know if they were trying to prove a point. Now, they were open and it’s make-or-miss game. If they make them, we’re saying it’s a good offense. But we were last (in the ACC) in 3-point shooting. We have to recruit shooting.”
The Jackets scrambled to get back in it. It’s what they do.
“Like a microcosm for our team,” Pastner said.
But ultimately they blew too many possessions, punctuated by nine second-half turnovers.
Also a microcosm.
Tech’s slim hopes for a strong finish this season likely evaporated when Alvardo suffered a fractured elbow, forcing Okogie into that role, and then Jackson.
Pastner: “It’s a recipe for disaster to play in the ACC without a point guard.”
There are many recipes for disaster in college sports. Tech appeared to sample all of them. Self-reported violations. Suspensions. NCAA investigation. Injuries. This is one of those seasons that a coach and a fan base just want to flush. But it doesn’t necessarily project woe for the future.
“Obviously the season didn’t go the way anybody wanted,” said Okogie, who’s expected to bypass the NBA option and return for his junior season. (A 5-for-20 performance against B.C. is not a good jumping off point to the NBA.)
“It’s a big lesson for everybody on this team – the coaching staff, for me, the seniors as they go out, the freshmen and returnees. We had a lot of new guys. Next year they’ll come in with a whole lot more experience. They’ll know what they have to work on this summer.”
It’s still early in Pastner’s tenure. There are positive signs for this team’s future: their players’ work ethic, indications they’re following their coach, improved recruiting (led by incoming point guard Michael Devoe of Orlando). They just need more players. They need guards. They need shooters.
We saw the good and the bad Tuesday. They fell behind by 20 (51-31). They cut it to seven (72-65) after a 3-point shot by Brandon Alston and a steal-and-dunk by Jackson with 2:31 remaining. But they missed their next three shots and four of their next five.
“We blew games here and there against teams we should’ve beaten,” Jackson said.
What does he think about Tech’s future?
“I feel like they’re going to be pretty good,” he said. “They’re signing the kid (Michael) Devoe, and Jose will be back, and, depending on Josh’s situation, he’ll be back. I feel like they’ll have good enough guards to do some damage next year.”
It’s important for Tech to not take a step back next season. A drop in Year 2 could have been expected. A drop in Year 3, not so much. Some peace off the court also is needed.
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