Thoughts about Georgia Tech and its matchup with No. 8 Duke Wednesday night in Durham, N.C. (7 p.m., ESPN2)
1. Impact of North Carolina win going forward
I think perhaps the biggest impact of the win over North Carolina is that it gives Tech players more belief that they can win games like the one Wednesday night. It doesn’t mean they will, but I’m fairly certain that they feel a lot better about their ability to beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium than they did a week ago.
Forward Quinton Stephens said as much on Monday, that beating North Carolina helped players realize that what they’re doing on offense really can work, even against the Tar Heels.
“Our philosophy is our cuts have to be really hard,” he said. “We want to be known as a really hard-cutting team, and I think that creates a lot of gaps, and (we) realize that, hey, we have players that are good enough to make their own play when a gap is made. We have guys that can read certain plays – with the offense that we’re running, we have to make a lot of different reads – and I think a win like this, over a high-quality team, pretty much builds confidence in our own schemes.”
If they’re more confident in it, they’re more likely to want to execute it precisely and make the cuts to the basket sharply, actions that have created a lot of layups for the Jackets. That’s the benefit, not mere belief, but a willingness to put that belief into action.
2. Changed outlook?
I think what happened Saturday was that Tech was close to perfect with offensive execution and played solid defense, and North Carolina was abysmal on offense. North Carolina was 5-for-26 (19.2 percent) from 3-point range. Going into the game, the Tar Heels had shot 37.6 percent from outside the 3-point arc. I think it would be reasonable to call the performance anomalous, which is what Tech probably needed to have a chance.
“I think it’s a reminder that Joel Berry and Justin Jackson are the Tar Heels’ two best players by a lot, and if they’re both off on the same night, they start looking a lot like everybody else,” said David Glenn, host of a popular radio show in North Carolina and a longtime ACC observer.
(An unrelated observation from Glenn: Tech center Ben Lammers “is one of the top 15 players in the league out of the gate so far this season, and he’s a two-way player on top of it. I think he’s one of the greatest examples of individual improvement in the ACC this season.”)
It reminds me a little bit of the first two ACC games of Brian Gregory’s tenure in the 2011-12 season. The Jackets nearly upset Duke at Philips Arena (the year that Alexander Memorial Coliseum was gutted) and then went on the road and beat N.C. State, which won 24 games that season and reached the Sweet 16. I remember writing something after the second game that perhaps the two results should modify the outlook for the remainder of the season.
Gregory was hopeful that the team was beginning to play with more of a blue-collar attitude, but, he said, “I don’t want to say everything’s solid.”
Sure enough, that team finished 4-12 in the ACC. Among the losses – 70-38 to Virginia, 56-37 to Clemson and 93-81 to North Carolina in a game that wasn’t that close. In the N.C. State game, among other things, a team that shot 31.2 percent from 3-point range for the season (259th in the country) was 9-for-15 against the Wolfpack.
3. On the other hand…
I do think the Jackets will at least be competitive in more games than perhaps was originally suspected. The Jackets have been fairly solid defensively – they’re 47th in adjusted points-per-possession, according to kenpom.com – by giving opponents problems with their effort, length and variety of zone defenses, and that will keep Tech in some games.
I think something that got lost a little bit in the loss to Georgia was that Tech held the Bulldogs to their second-lowest field-goal percentage of the season (37.1 percent), bettered only by Kansas. The only problem was that Tech did even worse (34.6 percent).
I wrote a story prior to the UNC game quoting three coaches who had faced Tech in the non-conference schedule, and all three mentioned the defense.
“They give you some different looks than the traditional 2-3 zone,” Wofford coach Mike Young said. “Now it turns into a 2-3, but because of the front (of the zone), it starts as a 1-1-3, it almost can look like a 1-3-1. What can happen is you’re trying to figure out what they’re doing, now you’re at 18 on the shot clock and that’s a rushed possession.”
The problem is that, even if the Jackets are in more games than previously thought, they may not have enough consistent firepower to win a lot of them. Guard Josh Okogie, who led the Jackets against the Tar Heels with 26 points, is clearly going to be a good player. He scored 38 against Tulane, which set a school freshman scoring record. However, he also has had three games in which he scored five points or fewer. Likewise, guard Tadric Jackson is capable of scoring 15 to 20 points, but also capable of scoring three to seven points.
I think holding Duke to 75 points would be a pretty big win. The Blue Devils average 82.9 points per game and have scored 75 or fewer five times in 14 games. However, I’m not sure Tech can score 75 points against Duke.
The Jackets have scored 75 points six times in 13 games, but mostly against weaker competition. They did hit 75 on the nose against North Carolina, although they were at 67 with 90 seconds left before the Tar Heels started fouling. Against power-conference competition, Tech has averaged 59 points.
4. Last thought
Against Duke, Tech’s best hope is that the Blue Devils struggle again without All-American guard Grayson Allen, who is suspended indefinitely for tripping a third opponent in less than a year. The Blue Devils do everything well, and are especially effective at not turning the ball over and offensive rebounding. That’s troublesome for Tech because a) turnovers often lead to easy baskets, and the Jackets need as many of those as possible; b) the Jackets can’t afford to give Duke extra opportunities.
Should Tech somehow win, I think a few things will have happened – the Jackets’ turnover total will be relatively low, they’ll have done a good job on the defensive glass and the two Joshes – Okogie and Heath – will have combined for at least 25 points.