Jan. 4, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
– When they last met, Miami and Georgia Tech made a scrum out of a basketball game, turning what was billed as an ACC Tournament game into an ugly, slow, hyper-physical contest that at times resembled another sport.
Chances are good that this afternoon’s ACC opener in McCamish Pavilion won’t look much like that game last spring, although it will not rise to approximate a track meet. And while there are quite a few familiar faces back for Tech, the Hurricanes (9-3) may hardly recognize the Yellow Jackets (10-2).
Brian Gregory and his staff are presiding over an evolution. There has been evidence that this team better knows what it is doing.
The Jackets are turning the ball over less, passing with greater purpose, scoring a shade more and defending better than last year – when that was just about all they had to hang their collective hats upon.
“We’re coming together more than people would have thought,” said freshman forward Marcus Georges-Hunt. “Coach keeps telling us we’re ahead of schedule defensively. We’re getting on the right page offensively. We just have to learn our plays extra sharp … and keep tightening up defensively.”
With a six-game winning streak built by trampling the likes of Alabama State, The Citadel, Fordham and Chattanooga, the Jackets have done what they’ve needed to do and emphatically.
There are all kinds of statistics that glow, particularly on defense. Tech has allowed just 47 points per game over the past six, and in surrendering 53.5 per game on the season, the Jackets have the sixth-best number in the nation there.
Never mind for a moment the strength of schedule, which was made on purpose to help integrate new players. Consider instead the eye test; just watching these Jackets play is quite a different experience than in recent years. There is rarely hesitation or confusion. Almost always seems a clear purpose.
It all starts off the court.
“It feels a lot better. It’s a lot more comfortable with the teammates we have, and the way we’re playing together,” said junior center Daniel Miller. “It’s hard to explain; it’s just a better team feeling. The last few years we haven’t really had that. You trust each other. You can give the ball away and know you’ll get it back.”
Mfon Udofia is this team’s unquestioned on-court leader. The one of two seniors on the squad, the point guard has grown steadily into his role. He’s less likely to look for his shot now than he was a year ago, and shooting more effectively when he does put it up.
He’s Tech’s third-leading scorer, his 9.7-point average trailing those of freshmen Georges-Hunt (11.5) and Robert Carter Jr. (10.0). Carter leads the Jackets in rebounding (6.8), and has been particularly effective of late. He’s averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds over the past five games with double-doubles to show.
So, the new blood – which includes freshman wing Chris Bolden off the bench – has helped.
They’ll continue to be critical, yet with ACC action all that remains, the old guys figures to slide more to the fore. Whether that remains the case statistically or not, Udofia, Miller, fellow juniors Brandon Reed and Kammeon Holsey and graduate student Pierre Jordan hold the reins.
“The freshmen have given us a huge lift; there’s no question about that,” Gregory said. “But as you go into conference play, you still have to rely on your upperclassmen. Those guys have been through it … Mfon said to them [Thursday], ‘You’re not freshmen now. You’ve played enough. You know what it’s about.’ “
Well, not really, but they’re about to find out.
Miami is physical. Point guard Shane Larkin, the son of Reds Hall of Fame shortstop Barry, is averaging 13.5 points and wing man Durand Scott (15.9) is a particular menace.
The ‘Canes have struggled recently since massive center Reggie Johnson went down with a broken left thumb. They miss his double-double averages (12.6 points, 10.1 rebounds).
Miami wing man Kenny Kadji is ready to pick up slack. He’s one of the more versatile players in the ACC, able to score inside or out (12 points, 7.0 rebounds).
“Kadji is one of the premier post players in our league,” Gregory said. “He can score on the block, and … shoot it. He’s a tough cover.”
Whether they’re getting the points and rebounds or not, Tech’s upperclassmen are still steering. Miller anchors the back line and the defense in total with his body, brain and mouth. Udofia calls shots more often than can be seen.
“I would fit one of [the team’s key player roles],” Miller said. “I’m probably the team’s best defender if not tied with somebody else … we haven’t been in too many [tough] spots … we’ll have some rough spots coming up.
“Mfon’s pretty much our vocal leader and energizer, waking us up if we’re not playing hard enough enough. Pierre does a lot of that, too, but he doesn’t spend as much time on the court.”
It’s a mix, and all parts will be called upon from here on out.
“We all talk and listen to each other. If Mfon sees something, he’ll say it,” Georges-Hunt said. “When we go to the free throw line, and go to those huddles, they’re good because we talk to each other and see how we feel.”
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