Nov. 3, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– There will be all kinds of feelings swirling around McCamish Pavilion on Saturday night, ranging from eagerness and excitement to trepidation and anxiety to just plain curiosity.
The Josh Pastner Era makes its unofficial debut when the 2016-17 Georgia Tech men’s basketball team takes the court against Shorter College in an exhibition game. Tipoff is at 7:30 p.m.
Okay, so maybe it’s not Orville and Wilbur Wright’s test flight at Kitty Hawk or Henry Ford’s Quadricycle ride in Detroit, but this initial test in flying and driving is one that has been widely anticipated on The Flats since Pastner was hired as Georgia Tech’s 14th basketball coach on April 8, 2016.
It doesn’t matter WHO the opponent is.
For the record, Shorter is a Division II school located in Rome, Ga., and a member of the Gulf South Conference, They will present the first scheduled challenge of the season.
While not being dismissive of the Hawks, who were picked eighth in the GSC, Pastner admits he’s more interested in his squad.
“I know they have two guards who can play, but more than that it’s about us,” he said. “We’ve got to focus on Georgia Tech.”
Those two guards — preseason All-GSC Phil Taylor, a 5-10 senior from Brooklyn, N.Y., via Florida International, the team’s leading scorer last season (25.1 ppg) and record-setting free throw shooter, and 6-3 senior Alijah Bennett, from Long Island, N.Y., via Kennesaw State — combined to score 66 of their 82 points in their 105-82 loss to Jacksonville State on Monday. They’ll be the focal point of a defense that was tested in a scrimmage last Saturday against Mississippi State.
“I thought the last scrimmage was good. I thought our guys did a lot of good things. Some things we really have to work on,” said Pastner. “It was good to play against somebody else so we can really dissect the film.”
Senior forward Quinton Stephens has been pleased with the week of practice in making adjustments off the film and can’t wait to get on the court against Shorter.
“We’re really excited,” said Stephens, the Jackets’ leading returning scorer (5.0 ppg), who has made 26 career starts for the Jackets, second most on the team. “We want to be as best prepared for Shorter as we can, but we also want to set up ourselves to do the best that we can. We’re obviously building a team, and we have to use these next games all leading up to games like Ohio and (Tennessee Tech) next week. We have to get better each game.”
Pastner felt there are positives against Mississippi State upon which they can build.
“I liked our conditioning. I thought our conditioning was good,” he said. “I thought we did a good job of taking care of the basketball, and we made free throws. Those are three big things.”
All three of those area, at times last season, hurt the Jackets, who ranked in the middle of the ACC pack in those categories. They were eighth in the ACC in free-throw shooting (72.2), eighth in turnovers (11.2), 14th in turnover margin (minus-1.39) and tied for seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.2 per game).
Stephens likes the way offense looks and believes that the team certainly will improve the frequency with which it gets to the line.
“I think that we can draw a lot of fouls off the offense that we’re doing,” he said. “We’re moving the ball well. Ball movement, player movement is what [Pastner] really emphasizes and attacking downhill. I think we’re creating a lot of gaps, and we’re able to get to the basket.”
Getting fouled and getting to the line mattered last year. The Jackets shot 72.2 percent from the line (eighth), but were 10th in the conference in free throw attempts (18.9 per game) and were outshot from the line in 19 of their 36 games, including all three NIT games, and 12 of 20 ACC games. They were 6-13 when outshot from the line, 1-11 in ACC games, while they were 15-2 when outshooting opponents at the line, 8-0 in conference play.
Taking better care of the ball also is an area the Jackets need to fix.
On Saturday they’ll count on freshman point guard Justin Moore and redshirt senior Corey Heyward to run the attack while Josh Heath sits the season’s first four games. Stephens is confident in the duo.
“I think that Josh has done a good job of showing them in practice,” he said. “He’s still able to practice. He goes right at them and guys understand, ‘Hey, Josh is a good player.’ They like to take it up for a challenge. I think that’s really pushing Justin and Corey to get better and, obviously, boosting their confidence whenever they play against him.”
The team’s confidence is growing as familiarity with the system and chemistry with each other improves.
“It’s a work in progress, but we’re much more comfortable as a team,” said Stephens. “If you look back two months ago, we were nowhere near where we are now. So I think every day we’re getting better. We’re able to find little nuances in the offense and learn a bit more about one another and how we like to play.”
An area the Jackets still need to improve is on defense.
“We have to really be better defensively,” Pastner said. “We have to be better at guarding the ball, be able to stop the ball in transition, we’ve got to do a much better job on the defensive end.”
Stephens believes improvement on both ends of the floor will come in time. He trusts Pastner and his system.
“He’s a players’ coach, and he really wants you to do what you do best,” he said. “He wants you to keep it simple and do what you do best and let it go from there.”
The Jackets will be a young team, with six underclassmen, and faces replacing the bulk of their starts (80.0 percent), minutes (67.0), points (77.3 percent), field goals made (78.0), three-point field goals made (74.1), rebounds (73.7) and assists (60.0) from last season.
That’s a challenge that the team recognizes and is up for.
“There’s a big opportunity ahead of us,” Stephens said. “With the work that we’ve put in and, obviously, leading on to years after this, we realize we have to build a culture and really establish the way we want Georgia Tech to be perceived.”