As ACC play starts, Pastner ‘still trying to feel out our team’

7:14 p.m Friday, Dec. 29, 2017 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Chuck Burton/AP
Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner answers a question during the Atlantic Coast Conference men's NCAA college basketball media day in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

At least one thing can be determined through one and a half seasons of coach Josh Pastner’s tenure at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets don’t hew to expectation.

Forecast to flail in Pastner’s first season, Tech upset North Carolina a year ago Sunday, triggering a series of upsets and an unlikely run to the NIT championship. This season, with hopes of building on the 21-win season and making a bid for the Jackets’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010, Tech has scraped bottom, undone by injuries to key team members, NCAA suspensions to three players and an assistant coach being put on paid leave as the NCAA investigates an allegation of a rules violation.

“There’s no doubt this has been an unusual two and a half months, in a sense,” Pastner said.

The Jackets get a re-set of sorts Saturday, when they begin ACC play at Notre Dame. Tech is 6-6, and an NCAA Tournament berth is, at the least, highly unlikely. But a young team is gaining experience, getting healthier (with one possible exception) and hoping to build off a strong finish in its most recent game, albeit one against an overmatched opponent (Coppin State).

In an interview with the AJC, Pastner asked for patience and consideration of Tech’s obstacles while addressing the team’s many setbacks.

“If you look at how we were playing at the end of the year last year, we were so good,” he said. “But that’s not how we played all year. We built to that. And I think for right now, it’s the same thing.”

Injuries, particularly to center Ben Lammers and guard Josh Okogie, have been damaging. Lammers sprained his ankle in the second game of the season and, while he has started all 12 games, was held out of practice for about a month. The injury limited his quickness, explosion and agility while not practicing hampered his conditioning and sharpness.

Through 12 games, Lammers’ scoring and rebounding numbers aren’t too far off from the same point a year ago (13.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game this season compared to 14.9 and 10.0 last season.) However, his shooting percentage (60.5 percent last year after 12 games, 50.0 percent now) and blocks (45 to 36) are down more noticeably.

It has impaired a team whose schemes at both ends of the floor center revolve around him.

“If you don’t practice, it just doesn’t work,” Pastner said.

Okogie is finding his rhythm since he first was suspended six games for an NCAA violation and then missed an additional two as he recovered from the dislocation and infection of his left index finger. Okogie is averaging 18.5 points per game, but has forced shots and looked out of sync in his four games back. Pastner attributes it to the layoff.

“These are some of the things that we would work on in the first few games of the season (had he been available),” he said.

Center Abdoulaye Gueye, forward Sylvester Ogbonda and guard Curtis Haywood have also missed time with injuries. Point guard Jose Alvarado, who has impressed as a freshman, is questionable for Saturday’s game after suffering a head injury in the Coppin State game, and Haywood and Ogbonda already are out. Last year, the Jackets lost just one player game to injury.

The slew of injuries has caused Pastner to re-consider the team’s strenuous conditioning program in the summer and preseason and other possible contributing factors.

“Like, do we need to strengthen their ankles more by not getting taped as much in (summer workouts)?” he asked.

The games and practices missed to injury and the influx of five scholarship players (four freshmen and grad transfer guard Brandon Alston) who weren’t on the roster a year ago – not including transfer guard Shembari Phillips, who is sitting out – have messed up the Jackets.

“I knew that our margin for error was still zero because of our depth, and then when you include some of the suspensions and injuries, it’s really affected our team in a sense,” he said. “We’ve never really been in rhythm or sync.”

The lack of continuity and experience has held back the team in a few areas in particular. What has particularly aggravated Pastner has been unforced turnovers. Tech is averaging 13.3 turnovers per game, which constitutes about 20 percent of its possessions. In his fashion, Pastner repeatedly brought up the need to limit turnovers over the course of a 30-minute interview, even while answering a question about the team’s defense.

“I beg, I plead, I pray – just do not turn the ball over,” he said. “Please hold onto the ball like it’s 24-karat gold, like it’s your firstborn child. Don’t turn the ball over.”

Tech’s offensive shortcomings – the Jackets rank 202nd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency (KenPom) – are evident in a prized statistic of Pastner’s, assists per made field goal. Last season, 62.4 percent of Tech’s baskets were assisted last season, which was 13th best in the country Thus far, only 56.5 percent have been, which was 93rd through Thursday’s games.

Pastner preaches quick ball movement to yield open shots, but the Jackets have sabotaged themselves with ineffective attempts to go one-on-one or shots taken early in the shot clock. Such play is contagious, Pastner said, “and other guys start wanting to take bad shots or selfish shots. Then they start thinking ‘It’s my shot’ instead of our shot.”

Another flaw is 3-point field-goal defense, in which Tech ranked 312th entering Friday’s games at 38.4 percent. Part of the problem is that teams are taking turns finding their stroke against the Jackets. But it goes beyond bad luck.

“There’s some things that they’ve gotten, some open 3’s where they’re getting some open looks based on our breakdowns defensively,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep working on that to get better.”

The absence of assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie has had an impact. LaBarrie, who was placed on paid leave Nov. 22 as the school began investigation of an allegation of an NCAA violation, was heavily involved in the design and execution of Tech’s defense, which finished sixth last season in adjusted defensive efficiency, but ranked 86th after Thursday’s games.

“We’re better with Darryl, there’s no question about it,” said Pastner, who deferred questions about LaBarrie’s fate to athletic director Todd Stansbury. “We’re down. I mean, everybody’s had to step up and wear different hats and multiple hats.”

The staff tracks deflections and the winners and losers of 50/50 balls – both indicators of effort – and both are down, Pastner said, although he notes mitigating factors, such as Lammers’ limited agility. He said the team needs to play with a greater sense of urgency.

He recognizes the 18-game league schedule will be rough. He said the team needs to improve, but said that progress may not be reflected in the win-loss record. He wants an NCAA Tournament bid, he said, “but it’s going to take time.”

That said, the roster has last season’s ACC defensive player of the year in Lammers, a member of this past summer’s U.S. U-19 national team in Okogie, a capable scorer in Tadric Jackson, a spark plug in Alvarado and three other promising freshmen.

“I’m still trying to feel out our team,” Pastner said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. We’ve still got pieces to be good. We’ve got to get healthy and we’ve got to get better.”