Jan. 14, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– From the day he was hired as Georgia Tech’s head basketball coach, Josh Pastner has been on a peddler’s trail, selling the program to anyone who might listen. His players are his most important customers, and they’re buying.
Nobody predicted before the season that the Yellow Jackets might get to 10-6 overall and especially 2-2 in the ACC for the first time since 2010-11.
There’s credit to go around, and as the Jackets prepare to start a three-game road trip Sunday at N.C. State (12-5, 1-3), you’d better believe that success breeds confidence, which increases the chances for more success.
Thursday’s 75-63 win over Clemson was the latest by-product of Pastner’s frenetic requests of players merged with their complicity – even though the Jackets entered that game off losses to Duke and Louisville.
Tech’s 75-63 win over North Carolina in the conference opener a couple weeks ago had plenty to do with them playing with confidence against Clemson.
Winning helps, and when an underdog team beats one of college basketball’s dynastic programs, the memory sticks around longer as a psychological aid.
“It definitely does,” said senior Quinton Stephens, who played one of his best all-around games of the season with a season-high 16 points and eight rebounds against the Tigers. “It helps us buy into what we’re doing. It’s kind of hard to buy into what you’re doing when you’re not getting results.”
Emboldened by what any wizened college basketball observers would term an excess of success relative to expectations, the Jackets have their hands full.
They’re entering a run of games at N.C. State, Virginia Tech (13-3, 2-2) and No. 19/18 Virginia (12-3, 2-2) and then home games against No. 9/10 Florida State (16-1, 4-0) and No. 20 Notre Dame (15-2, 4-0) with faith.
As one of seven ACC teams to enter the weekend tied for fourth place at 2-2, they’re not predicting wins. But they’re not accepting other peoples’ predictions for losses, either. They feel they can compete.
“I think winning early in conference play can definitely help your confidence, especially the ACC opener against North Carolina,” said senior guard Josh Heath, who rang up eight assists Thursday. “And Clemson’s a really good team, too.”
The Wolfpack have been more uneven than might have been predicted.
They lost their ACC opener by 18 points at Miami, were impressive at home in beating then-No. 21 Virginia Tech, and then were drilled at North Carolina and listless in an eight-point loss at Boston College.
Junior guard Dennis Smith is among the league’s most talented players, averaging 18.8 points and 6.2 assists, and N.C. State has five players averaging double-figure scoring. When they’re on, they score a lot.
Scoring is not the Jackets’ forte; they’re built upon defense.
More than anything, Pastner’s team revolves around its collective effort and attention to detail. The coach loves to talk about the importance of his guards pitching in on the boards, for example, which is not high on the list of talking points of many college coaches.
In the win over North Carolina, starting point guard Justin Moore gathered all six of his rebounds, four defensive, in the second half as Tech out-scored the Tar Heels 46-31.
Against Clemson, “You know why we were in the game [Thursday] night? We had eight (defensive) rebounds from the guards. Justin had three, Josh Heath had one, Tadric had four,” Pastner said. “We were good in transition because we got guard rebounds.
“It’s a direct correlation, a reflection on the head coach when the guards are not sticking their noses in there and rebounding. You’ve got to be an extension of me when you’re on the floor.”
Guard rebounding might be considered one area where the Jackets’ buy-in has not been complete. Moore in particular gets cross-ways with his coach through his inconsistent attention to this detail.
“I lost it on Justin vs. Louisville when he didn’t stick his nose in there,” the coach said. “Lost it on Heath when he didn’t stick his nose in there. Lost it on Tadric the other day because those are big plays. That sets the tone. We’ve got to be really good in that area.”’
This is more important for Tech because guard rebounds often lead to transition baskets, which can be easier baskets. The Jackets are not gifted offensively, and scoring in the half court is difficult.
Tech struggles to find points consistently beyond center Ben Lammers, who put up his eighth double-double of the season against Clemson with 23 points and 10 rebounds, and freshman guard Josh Okogie, who averages 14.0 points to Lammers’ 15.4.
Jackson has been hot a few times, like when he scored a career-high 24 points in an upset win at VCU and when he had 20 points against Southern.
Stephens is a wildcard, too.
The senior from Marist is playing the best all-around basketball of his college career, despite not shooting well. He’s second on the team in rebounding (7.8 per game to Lammers’ 9.9), third in assists (33 overall), second in steals (20 to Okogie’s 21) and second in blocked shots (17).
His coaches have been after him, though, to score more even though he’s hitting just 33.6 percent from the field and on 27.9 percent of his 3-pointers.
After dunking twice against Clemson – the first times he’s dunked in a couple seasons – he bumped his scoring average up to 9.9 (behind Jackson’s 10.8) for fourth on the team. He also drained a couple 3-pointers against the Tigers.
“Sometimes, we have to trust ourselves,” Stephens said. “You start to second guess. You’ve already done the work, but you might not get the results, but I believe you have to trust the process. I think it just brings more energy, and that energy can be contagious.”
The same can be said of winning.
“Success breeds confidence, specifically winning,” Pastner said. “There are different definitions of success, but obviously it gives you something for the players to see.
“I talked last night about the vision the recruits and fans can see, but also the student-athletes; they have an understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish because when you have wins out of it, it’s a gratifying feeling.”