It’s not often a basketball team that was expected to be halfway decent slips into elimination mode in January, but Georgia Tech’s season has been a journey into places both exotic and just plain weird. It began, with a loss, in China. It has seen two players suspended by the NCAA and one assistant coach placed on paid leave. (The players are back; assistant Darryl LaBarrie probably won’t be.) It has seen its head coach seek legal action against friend-from-hell Ron Bell.
The season has also seen losses to Grambling State, Wofford and Wright State, surely the worst trifecta authored by any ACC program ever. For all that has gone wrong, those losses are why the Yellow Jackets are where they are, which is 10-11 headed to February and all but gone.
Entering Sunday’s game against Clemson, Tech’s RPI was 140 – one spot below Georgia Southern, four ahead of Georgia State. An RPI of half that probably won’t swing an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament. (Ask Georgia. It’s at 61 and Mark Fox is sweating bullets.) Given what’s left on the schedule, meaning games against both Duke and Virginia plus the ACC tournament, Tech had to beat the sagging Tigers to make the next six weeks halfway interested. It lost 72-70.
If we go by Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, which had the Jackets at No. 114, they’re favored to one more regular-season game, that against Wake Forest here on March 3. This time a year ago, Tech was celebrating its third victory in four weeks over a ranked team – first North Carolina, which would win the national championship, then Florida State, then Notre Dame – and a goodly chunk of the world seemed Josh Pastner’s oyster. This season he’s the coach of a team that should be better than its record, which is rotten.
The Jackets actually played a nice first half. They scored on 12 of their first 16 possessions, taking leads of 7-0, 24-12 and 29-17. They’d done almost everything they wanted, from protecting the ball (three turnovers in 20 minutes) and finding and making good shots (16 of 28 in the half, which is 57.1 percent). But there is in college hoops this thing called the 3-point shot – it’s worth three points, per University of Georgia curriculum – and it can skew things.
Clemson had been outplayed, yet it was – owing to its seven treys – within two points at halftime. The Jackets didn’t score over the first half’s final 4:05. They didn’t score over the second half’s first 4:22. They were ahead no longer, and now it was desperation time.
The Tigers were a vulnerable opponent. They’d lost their second-leading scorer to injury; they’d also lost three of their past five games, the latest a 64-36 thumping at Virginia. But Tech built a working lead and saw it evaporate, and the Jackets didn’t lead over the final 19:40. Remember those 16 first-half baskets? They managed nine the second half.
Josh Okogie overrode an eight-point deficit pretty much by himself – he scored 26 points on 10 shots – but Clemson’s Marcquise Reed drove for the go-ahead basket with 25 seconds left. Then Okogie missed a drive. Then, after Reed missed the front end of a one-and-one, Tech couldn’t hoist a shot before the buzzer.
“At this point of the season,” Okogie said, “you’ve just got to get the win.”
“This isn’t the first time I’ve thought we played well and lost the game,” Pastner said. “That’s kind of what happened.”
It would be wrong to call Tech a bad-looking team. It has some decent players. Pastner, who was thought to be overmatched by some Memphis fans, has looked clever enough here. And it’s possible that so many has happened this season that it would have been impossible to wring anything good from it. Still, 10-11 isn’t just not good; it’s wretched.
Pastner: “We dropped some games early that obviously hurt. Before the season, I told everybody – I told my bosses, I told anybody who would listen – this was going to be the hardest year of the rebuild. I knew we were losing the three seniors. Ben (Lammers) played at such a level he wasn’t going to sneak up on anybody. Now, as for how it got to be hard, there were different reasons.”
Then: “That means next year and the year after has to be better. But this is the ACC. We’re relying on Jose Alvarado for 40 minutes as a freshman point guard. He wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American. He wasn’t a top 100 player. We’re young in a lot of areas we’re counting on guys to produce for us.
Then: “We’re getting better. I know it doesn’t show on the scoreboard, but a lot of individual guys are getting better.”
In any rebuild, there’s always one bad season. So long as the bad stuff is contained to one year, Pastner and Tech should be OK. Should, I said.