In the middle of an unrelenting ACC schedule, Georgia Tech has found an oasis.
The Yellow Jackets, with seven conference games still to come, take a one-game respite to play Tusculum, a Division II program from east Tennessee that is that state’s oldest college and the 23rd-oldest operating college in the country, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
Tusculum has produced governors, congressmen and a handful of professional athletes. But it was chosen for this slot to act as a potential stopgap for what some at Georgia Tech believed at one time might be a bad season.
When Georgia Tech hired Josh Pastner in the spring, he was told to expect a complete teardown and rebuild of the program. He was warned by then-athletics director Mike Bobinski that the team might go the entire season without winning a conference game.
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That’s where Tusculum comes in.
“They told me we weren’t going to win a game in the ACC, and we had one bye,” Pastner said. “They told me we could lose 11 straight (in the ACC), so we scheduled a game — and there’s no guarantee we’re going to win on Tuesday — but we felt, hey, we’ve got to get somebody that could maybe give us a chance to win in case we’ve lost 11 straight game, because that’s what I was told. That’s why the game was scheduled.”
Normally a team in Georgia Tech’s position might welcome a day off, especially on the heels of back-to-back road games. But Pastner said, “We have to play.”
Georgia Tech (13-10, 5-6 ACC) has lost its past two games. On Saturday, the Yellow Jackets dropped an 81-69 decision at Wake Forest, as center Ben Lammers got into early foul trouble and was limited to seven points and seven rebounds.
So, enter Tusculum, which competes in the South Atlantic Conference and has played Notre Dame, Tennessee, East Tennessee State and UNC Asheville during head coach Michael Jones’ six-year tenure. The Pioneers (10-12) have won their past two games. They average 81.2 points and have three players who average double figures: Kendall Patterson (15.5), Ronnie Baylark (13.3 points) and Cory Pagan (12.6).
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to win the game,” Pastner said. “We’re not good enough where we can just show up and expect to win. We’re going to have to play to get the win.”
The Yellow Jackets further understand the importance of Lammers’ presence in the lineup. He didn’t score in the first half against Wake Forest and couldn’t be as aggressive when he was saddled with the quick fouls. He played only 26 minutes, his second-lowest amount of the year.
“Our margin for error is zero, but our margin for error without Ben Lammers … well, I’ve got a better chance to … I don’t want to say it,” Pastner said. “It makes it awfully hard without Ben Lammers. For us to be within 50 (on Saturday) was a modern miracle.”
The Yellow Jackets are expected to be without forward Abdoulaye Gueye for the rest of the season. The sophomore has a left wrist injury and is a long shot to return. He was averaging 10 minutes per game and gave Pastner the ability to spell Quinton Stephens and Lammers.
On Saturday, Pastner leaned heavily on Sylvester Ogbonda, a 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman, against Wake Forest. He played a career-high 14 minutes before fouling out. Ogbonda totaled only three minutes during the previous six games.
“Sylvester gave us good minutes, and we’ve improved as a team,” Pastner said. “We’re just hanging by a thread in many areas.”