Jan. 3, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– In a season of surprises – yes, that’s plural – Georgia Tech will aim for another Wednesday in a place that has been especially hostile for the Yellow Jackets, who are emboldened nonetheless by head coach Josh Pastner’s bag of surprises.
The Jackets (9-4, 1-0 ACC) will enter Cameron Indoor Stadium believing they can beat No. 8 Duke (12-2, 0-1) largely for sake of the results they’ve seen in playing multiple defenses, particularly zones, while stymying most opponents.
They’re fresh off the best example.
Tech shocked the basketball world, or at least a bunch of Tar Heels, on Saturday with a 75-63 win over No. 9/10 North Carolina that was less about how much the Jackets scored, and much more about how the Heels often did not.
UNC (12-3, 0-1) entered the game averaging 89.6 points per game, ninth-most in the nation, and earlier put 100 on Kentucky in a loss. They were shooting 48.6 percent from the field. They were fifth in the nation in offensive efficiency. They’d made nine or more 3-point shots in three of their previous five games.
And the Jackets utterly flummoxed them.
In spite of all the negativity floated into the ethos about this team since it was picked to finish next-to-last in the ACC by preseason media, through comments made by many that Tech might not win a conference game, the Jackets are 1-0 in the conference for the first time since 2005-06, when they won against Virginia.
So never mind that Tech is 5-34 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and hasn’t won there since a 76-68 upset of the No. 3 Blue Devils on March 3, 2004 – just three weeks before the Jackets ran to the NCAA title game.
“When I came to Georgia Tech, I said if there’s two teams I’d like to beat, it’d be UNC and Duke,” said senior forward Quinton Stephens. “For that to happen with these guys, guys who they really don’t expect to win any games … I’m excited for the younger guys to experience it.
“It’s also coming off a win like this … we said we can play with these guys.”
Josh Okogie broke out of a slump Saturday with 26 points to help snap a seven-game losing streak to North Carolina, but even the prodigious freshman realizes that Tech is not gifted offensively, and that for the Jackets to succeed, they have to defend like mad.
Like they did while ripping off 15 steals, forcing 20 North Carolina turnovers, limiting the Tar Heels to 33 percent shooting, and a miserable 5-of-26 afternoon from beyond the 3-point line.
Tech is at its best, Okogie said, “When our defense is clicking on all cylinders. It actually boosts our offense when we’re able to get stops. It also leads to easy buckets, which also gives us confidence.”
The numbers back up the Jackets.
They’re ranked No. 29 nationally (out of 351 Division I teams) in field goal defense (38.5 percent), No. 50 in scoring defense (64.8 points per game) and No. 3 in blocked shots (7.0 per game).
Tech might not have a stellar one-on-one defender the likes of Karl Brown, but the Jackets scramble nicely. They help one another, and through their on-court communication and effort, the Jackets are making up for their overall shortage of scorers by playing the game at blur speed, especially on defense.
“The guys have worked,” Pastner said. “On defense, just effort and energy, playing hard . . . you don’t have to have a lot of skill. It’s really just flying around and playing hard, which we’ve done.
“Offense is more of a skill game, and we struggle in some areas there. Defense strictly comes on the energy and effort and for the most part, we’ve been good.”
That’s about right.
Tech ranks 280th in scoring offense (68.6 points per game), 347th in 3-pointers attempted (154), and 171st in 3-point percentage (35.1).
They get after it on defense, though, which sometimes starts their offense.
It’s surely safe to say that nobody expected junior center Ben Lammers to become the player that he has. That the 6-foot-10 center is averaging 14.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 3.62 blocked shots per game (No. 4 in the nation) is a surprise, and a partial testament to assistant Eric Reveno (who by the way pre-scouted UNC).
The Jackets’ 76-73 win at VCU on Dec. 7 was a surprise, too.
That was a rare game in which Tech’s offense probably saved the day, as Tech made 6-of-12 3-point shots in the second half while shooting 51.9 percent from the field in an arena where the home team very rarely loses.
Even with that, the Jackets forced 20 turnovers that day with 12 steals, and Lammers had four of Tech’s six blocked shots. Stephens, who is averaging 1.31 blocked shots to rank ninth in the ACC and 141st nationally, had the other two.
Stephens also leads the Jackets in steals, averaging 1.46 per game.
The key has been switching defenses.
Tech is playing more zones than even Pastner predicted. After the first few workouts with his team after being hired in April, he said, “I did not know we were going to play a lot of zone. I felt that we were going to have to maybe come up with some different strategies … to win games, both offensively and defensively.”
It sure worked Saturday, when UNC coach Roy Williams said the Tar Heels couldn’t solve Tech’s 1-3-1 in particular.
“We took too many outside shots. We lost our confidence and gave them more confidence,” he said. “They played it well; they were aggressive.”
When Tech’s defense is humming, the Jackets become more confident and aggressive on offense.
“I think it’s just how hard we play,” Stephens said. “Really, it’s just a mindset. We’ve got to help each other. No guy is going to guard another guy in the ACC by himself, so we’ve got to help each other out.”
Lammers is the ultimate helper, waiting at the back of the zone.
For all the attacks that he’s thwarted, he’s done a fabulous job of staying out of foul trouble in all but one game. All of the Jackets have. Tech ranks No. 47 nationally in fewest fouls per game (16.9).
That’s a skill, and the switching defenses help the Jackets activate it.
“It’s a huge confidence booster,” Lammers said. “They had some difficulty scoring on us, and that shows that even when our offense isn’t scoring, we can rely on our defense to hold things down … keep them guessing. If we find one that works, we’ll stay in it. In general, I like switching defenses.”
Chances are the Jackets will keep switching it up.
Duke sophomore forward Luke Kennard is lighting it up, averaging 21.4 points per game, and shooting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc. Freshman Jayson Tatum is averaging 15.8 points, and graduate student Amile Jefferson is going for 13.8 points, not to mention 10.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots per game.
Tech will do what it does.
“We’ve gotten better, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Nothing has changed with us. Our margin for error is zero,” Pastner said. “Our margin of error … if we don’t play near perfect in certain areas … it’s going to be hard for us to win the game.”