A basketball journey

A behind-the-scenes look at Georgia Tech on the road
with coach Josh Pastner.

By Ken Sugiura
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In a small, unadorned locker room underneath the Joel Coliseum stands, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner is trying to set the stage for a second-half comeback against Wake Forest on Feb. 4. In different moments, he is excoriating players for careless offense in the first half, praising them for defensive successes and then imploring them to sharpen their focus on the details.

Pastner’s team is assembled in rows of four. Team members look intently back at him. Hired to revitalize the Yellow Jackets, Pastner is being put to the test on this Saturday afternoon in Winston-Salem, N.C., Tech trails 37-31 in a game that would require every effort and bounce for them to win.

“This game’s going to be won through getting stops, OK?” Pastner tells them. “Get stops. Get stops.”

After huddling in the middle of the room, the Jackets head for the door, trying to steal a win in the final 20 minutes.

For Tech’s road game at Wake Forest, Pastner allowed the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to accompany the team with access to practice, video sessions, meals and the locker room. This is what it looked like.

Zelnak Center, Georgia Tech

3 p.m. Friday

The challenge of this game is spelled out in three ways. Before practice, forward Abdoulaye Gueye, the primary backup for center Ben Lammers, is practicing one-handed shots with his right hand. His left wrist is encased in a brace after he fractured it in a loss to Clemson on Wednesday night. Guard Justin Moore, who has started 18 games and averaged 22.9 minutes, does not participate in practice but is riding a stationary bike, having suffered an abdominal injury in the Clemson game. He’s doubtful to play against Wake Forest.

And guard Josh Heath, as the team goes through stretching exercises up and down the court, is brought tissues to blow his nose. Heath played in the Clemson game Wednesday after vomiting earlier in the day and taking an IV before the game. He reports he feels better, but his watery eyes and congestion indicate he’s far from recovered.

Practice lasts less than 90 minutes. It’s mostly spent on practicing against Wake Forest’s offensive and defensive looks. Assistant coaches Darryl LaBarrie, a former Tech guard, and Eric Reveno round out the scout team that portrays the Demons Deacons’ five. A primary concern is Wake Forest forward John Collins, who has scored 20 or more points in five consecutive games. He’ll match up with Lammers.

“Ben, you have to move your feet,” Pastner tells Lammers after Reveno, who played at Stanford in the late 1980s, scores over him. “He’s a good player. You can’t just stand there like the Statue of Liberty.”

After practice, forward Quinton Stephens works on his 3-point shot for perhaps 20 minutes, methodically moving around the arc as managers Spencer Palladino and Jordan Coar rebound and feed him the ball.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Atlanta

6 p.m. Friday

The team bus pulls up onto a private ramp where Tech’s charter jet awaits. The bus parks 12 steps away from the portable stairway leading to the 50-seat CRJ 200.

It is not a plane made for basketball players. The Jackets often fly charter, but usually on larger jets. They even somehow ended up on a Boeing 737 for their trip to N.C. State. The ceiling of the CRJ 200 is 6 feet and 1 inch high, and the seats are comparably tight. Lammers, who is 6-foot-10, sits in the back row, his left leg extended down the aisle.

“I’m pretty much one of the last ones that has to double up because (being) 6-10, they kind of feel sorry for me,” he says later.

Shortly after takeoff, the cabin lights are turned off and most players fall asleep, listening to their earbuds or earphones. Rand Rowland finishes up a hand-written letter of several pages to his cousin, who recently accepted a tennis scholarship, with advice on life as a college athlete. Rowland learned that a member of the Sunday school class that he teaches will play college football.

“Now I’ve got to write another one,” he says, the idea apparently not occurring that he is not actually obligated to perform this act of thoughtfulness.

At the front of the cabin, assistant coach Tarvaras Hardy, who assembled the scouting report for the game, and Pastner watch Wake Forest game video on their laptops, continuing to scour for clues to unlock the Demon Deacons.

Smith Reynolds Airport, Winston-Salem, N.C.

7:30 p.m. Friday

Shortly after boarding the bus, there is a small emergency. Guard Tadric Jackson doesn’t have his sneakers. There is cross-talk about when people saw them last before word comes back that LaBarrie found them in the overhead bin. Response to the oversight suggests this isn’t the first time this has happened.

"I’m telling you, we can win the national championship." - Josh Pastner

(Allison Lee Isley/The Winston-Salem Journal)

Winston-Salem Marriott, Winston-Salem

7:45 p.m. Friday

With the bus parked outside the hotel, the team is reminded of the night’s itinerary — a video session at 8:30 p.m. followed by dinner — before unloading and strolling into the hotel lobby. Stephens boards an elevator with his coaches. Pastner, a Marriott platinum member, tells Stephens he’s on the 18th floor.

“Penthouse,” Stephens says with an approving nod.

Forty-five minutes later, players, coaches and staff assemble in a nondescript conference room. Pastner is at the front of the room, next to a projection screen, with players seated around him. He repeats a statistic given to him by team spokesman Mike Stamus, that the Jackets’ rate of assists per made field goal (62.6 percent) is better than any Tech team since the 2000-01 Jackets.

“That’s a really great stat that (shows) we’ve come a long way,” he says.

Wielding a laser pointer, Pastner then reviews a series of clips from the Clemson game, with help from video coordinator Tyler Benson. Mostly, he points out plays where the Jackets failed to cut hard enough, didn’t go after a rebound with enough effort, took shots too quickly in the shot clock or otherwise went astray of his constant urging to play with energy, effort and execution. He also highlights plays where players cut with energy (often, guard Justin Moore).

His main points are that they have to trust the offense, that teams don’t want to guard them through a series of cuts and that they have to take jump shots when they open and their feet are set.

He reminds them of a point he makes often, that the team has no margin for error with its energy, effort and execution, then he makes a stunning declaration.

“And if we are (playing that way), man, we can beat anyone in this league,” he says. “And I’m telling you, we can win the national championship. You might say, ‘Coach, come on. Blah, blah, blah. You’re just saying that.’ Hey, there’s one person in this room that’s won a national championship, and that’s me. I’ve been there. I’ve been in two national championship games, lost one, won one, as a player, as an assistant coach. So I know the deal. I know the deal, what it takes to get there.”

Hardy runs through a series of Wake Forest plays from games against Boston College and Syracuse. He gives tidbits about personnel with a lot of attention on Collins, the leading scorer. Pastner interjects his own comments. They give the message that Wake Forest is formidable, but can be beaten.

“They can’t beat us if we guard,” Pastner says.

Joel Coliseum, Winston-Salem

8:45 a.m. Saturday

A chilly, bright morning greets the Jackets as they bus to the arena. As players loosen up by shooting jump shots at both baskets, virtually the only noise in the arena is the bouncing of basketballs on the hardwood. Center Ben Lammers and graduate transfer forward Kellen McCormick chat quietly, but that’s about it.

Reveno, Tech’s assistant coach for post players, has observed that the team isn’t particularly garrulous, which is apparently not uncommon. He says that on-court communication has become such a lost skill that it’s unusual to find a player who excels at calling out screens or otherwise talking to teammates. A theory among coaching colleagues is that text messaging has become so ingrained for players in this generation that they just don’t talk face to face as much.

Says Reveno, “We need, like, a screening emoji.”

Pastner typically conducts shootarounds at full speed, with players taped up. With his team depleted, hobbled and sick, he makes a concession. The walk-through is conducted at actual walking pace and players don’t tape up.

Hardy and Pastner review Wake Forest again, repeating instructions on how to handle Collins, going over the Demon Deacons’ inbounds plays and stressing proper positioning on the floor. To give an accurate picture, Hardy moves scout-team players around the floor like pawns on a chess board.

After about 50 minutes on the floor, the session wraps up. As is the ritual, after huddling up at midcourt, the team won’t leave until a player has made a halfcourt shot. Jackson, who always goes first, buries his shot to cheers from his teammates. It’s the first time that that’s happened this season.

“He’s 1 out of 22,” Gueye says. (Actually, 1 of 23.) “It’s going to be a good day.”

(Allison Lee Isley/The Winston-Salem Journal)

Winston-Salem Marriott

9:45 a.m. Saturday

Pastner walks into the hotel lobby with a phone to his ear, as is often the case. Mid-conversation, he spots guard Josh Okogie heading for the elevator.

“Josh ‘O’!” he shouts. “Let’s be big on the glass. Awareness and alertness.”

His phone call over, he huddles with guard Josh Heath.

“Manage the game. Open (for a shot) — knock it down,” he says. “And you’ve got to be ready to play 38, 39 minutes. It is what it is.”

Standing by a coffee stand, Pastner acknowledges the challenge in front of the Jackets with the depleted lineup. He thinks he hasn’t coached a game “maybe in my entire life” where he has had such a limited roster.

“I mean, we’re thin,” he says. “I’ve been saying ‘No margin for error’ — this is literally no margin for error, because we’re thin.”

With Gueye injured, forward Sylvester Ogbonda, who has played 14 minutes in ACC games thus far, is going to have to play a key role backing up Lammers.

Joel Coliseum, Winston-Salem

3 p.m. Saturday

After drawing out the first two offensive plays to run, giving out defensive assignments and being led in prayer by Rowland (who quotes extensively from the book of 2 Kings, prompting teammates to observe that it was like being in Sunday school), Tech gets a free throw from the first play, but screw up the second. Pastner turns back to the bench, his face expressing incredulity.

It gets worse. Lammers, who has a particular skill for defending without fouling, is called for two fouls less than seven minutes into the game. Pastner replaces him with Ogbonda, who gives effort and doesn’t back down, but is not nearly as capable as Lammers. Pastner risks sending Lammers back in at the 7:21 mark and barely a minute later, he’s hit with his third. Lammers holds his hands up and offers a disbelieving smile. Pastner turns to Ogbonda and directs him to the scorer’s table.

At halftime, before Pastner addresses the team, a team member tells strength coach Dan Taylor that Obgonda is throwing up. It turns out he had already been getting sick the previous night and that morning. Despite the stream of setbacks, the half ends 37-31 in Wake Forest’s favor, a reasonable deficit.

But after Pastner’s halftime exhortations to lock in on defense (“Get stops”), Tech surrenders backbreaking 3-pointers on Wake Forest’s first two possessions of the half, extending the lead to 12 and forcing a team that is listing with injury, illness and foul trouble to climb a hill that is too steep and too long.

Fatigued, Heath turns the ball over five times, matching his career high. Okogie, a linchpin, finally gets going in the final few minutes, but it’s too late. Lammers plays 26 minutes, 10 under his ACC average, and scores seven points. Tech’s inability to create open looks results in 35.7 percent shooting from the field. Collins scores 20 with 11 rebounds. Tech loses 81-69 and falls to 13-10 overall and 5-6 in the ACC.

In the locker room afterward, players take their seats, awaiting Pastner. His tone is calm. He tells media later that “it makes it awfully hard without Ben Lammers. I don’t know what else to tell you.”

Rather than dwell on the game, he points the team forward to upcoming home games against Division II Tusculum on Tuesday and Boston College on Saturday.

“We’re on a two-game losing streak,” he says. “We got swept on the road trip this trip. So we’ve got to recover at home.”

Smith Reynolds Airport

6:30 p.m. Saturday

Night is falling. Team managers Thomas Bridges, Alex Fisher and Erik Maday load the plane, with help from other staff members and the team’s freshmen.

The team quickly boards, and the jet is on its way back to Atlanta before long. The cabin is darkened and not much is heard, save the occasional cough.

At the front of the plane, Reveno has pulled up the video from the Wake Forest game to review. The push to correct mistakes, to win games, to make the NCAA tournament and — if Pastner is to be believed — even win it, doesn’t stop.

About the author

Ken Sugiura covers Georgia Tech.

He started at the AJC in 1998 and has covered a variety of beats, mostly within sports.

Follow Georgia Tech basketball on myAJC.com and follow Sugiura @ksugiuraajc on Twitter.

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