Jan. 22, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– To a man, no one around Georgia Tech men’s basketball is panicked about their 1-4 start in ACC play, expressing the utmost confidence in each other.
That confidence undoubtedly emanates from head coach Brian Gregory and his unwavering faith in the team.
But on Thursday afternoon, Gregory stated that a little more personal accountability on the defensive end and a little less reliance on teammates might hold the key to slowing what has been a seemingly constant parade of opponents to the free throw line, where Georgia Tech has been outshot 149-85 (29.8-17.0 per game).
“You have to do a better job on the ball,” Gregory said. “We have to do a better job of staying focused and disciplined defensively even when we’re away from the ball. We have to do a better job of not getting stretched off the ball on the backside in particular. You have to almost develop the mentality when you’re guarding the ball you have to defend it as if there is no help. When you’re off the ball you have to be ready to help guard the ball as if the guy guarding it can’t guard anybody. You have to do that.
“We’ve done a good job of taking away the three-point shot from teams, in terms of what they’re shooting,” he added. “They’re shooting 26 percent in the league. But if you get outscored by 18, 19, 20 points in one half from the free throw line….”
The Jackets have owned the perimeter in conference play, leading the ACC in three-point shooting (40.5 percent, a 22-point edge over second-ranked Notre Dame), and ranking second in three-point defense (25.7 percent), with only one opponent shooting better than 35 percent (Pittsburgh, at 46.2). The Jackets had shot at least 45 percent from three until their recent two-game skid, where they’ve been under 27.0 — yet even in those games they still shot better than Notre Dame and had the same number of field goals as Virginia Tech — and have outscored ACC foes from three 102-48.
The same glowing numbers cannot be said about the charity stripe, where the disparity is staggering, to say the least (and that’s with the given that some of those FTAs have come late trying to get possessions). Tech has scored as many as 15 points from the free throw line one time, in their ACC opener at North Carolina, and twice has scored in single-digits. They have yet to attempt as many as 20 free throws in a game — their high was 19, also at UNC, they only took 18 in their win over Virginia, which came right down to the end. In the four losses, opponents have taken no fewer than 24 attempts. Even in their win UVA actually took four more free throws than Georgia Tech.
What frustrates Gregory is that his team is making the effort plays and doing the little things that usually translate into victories, were it not for those meddling free throws.
“We have a hustle board that we keep track of loose balls, charges, transition baskets, second-chance points,” he said. “Over 26 years of coaching, you win about 90 percent of the games that you win on the hustle board. The one outlier is always free throws. This year, it’s about 60 percent, and it’s all due to the free throw situation. It’s just something that we need to be focused about. You can’t play not to play the way we’re supposed to play defensively. We need to get better in some areas and keep chugging along with that stuff.”
While there’s no official tracking of charges and loose balls, there is for second-chance points and fast break points.
Tech’s dominance on the boards — they’re plus-13 in ACC play, winning three of the five games and tying in another — is an illustration of their effort. It’s helped them dominate second-chance points (winning three times in the last four games and tying the one they didn’t). As far as fast break points, the Jackets broke out on Saturday, setting a season-high in doubling up Virginia Tech, 28-14.
“I know last game we won the hustle board even though we lost the game. I think maybe in the Pittsburgh game as well. So two out of those four, where we won [the hustle board] and did what we were supposed to do,” Gregory said. “But that outlier that isn’t usually, especially with us, because in all the games that we played before, even against the high-level teams, we weren’t outshot from the free throw line like that. It’s just something that we have to do a much better job on.”
Gregory is optimistic that the Jackets do what it takes to get back on the positive end of the free throw shooting scale.
“We were so positive heading into league play with it, even against the BCS-type schools, and VCU, which is a perennial top-25 team,” he said, pointing to the Jackets winning the free throw battle in 10 of their 13 non-conference games and outshooting their opponent in nine of those games. “We did it not only drives but because of us getting the ball inside into the post. So we’re going to have to do the same in this game.”
Tech may actually have the right opponent against which to even the score.
While Louisville is ranked in the top 20 and is the top field goal defense team in the nation, holding opponents to 36.3 shooting (42 points lower than second-place Miami in the ACC), they, too, have had more than their share of whistles go against them in ACC play. The Cardinals have been whistled for seven more fouls than their opponents (104-97) been outshot at the line by a hefty 37 shots (128-91) and been outscored from there by a dozen (76-64).
“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in this game,” said Gregory, with a laugh.
It also will be interesting to see how the Jackets respond to the challenge on the boards, as the Cardinals lead the conference in rebounding margin (plus-6.4 in ACC games — Tech is sixth at plus-2.6).
“Obviously [they’re] a team accustomed to winning and a team that over the past three or four weeks has done a really good job of understanding their roles and playing their system and style and have been very successful,” said Gregory. “We’re going to have to play extremely well, take care of the ball, do a great job defensively and do a great job on the glass.”
Saturday will be the Jackets’ fifth conference game in six against a ranked team or a team receiving votes. They’ve stuck around in all five games, but just sticking around is getting old for Gregory, who is ready to see his team take the next step.
“You have to take care of business in those games, and it’s a challenge,” he said. “Five of your first six games are against, at the time, top-25 teams or former top-25 teams or to-be top-25 teams. We’ve talked about it. You have to play the games. So now you need to go out and protect your home court. You have to do a great job of playing a very disciplined 40 minutes of basketball.
“For us, there’s no question, we’re much more efficient offensively, we shoot the ball better, less turnovers, all those different things,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you, I never thought we’d have three games where we scored 72 points or more and didn’t win. So we know the area where we’re not as good and that we need to improve. There are times we need to execute better, but overall our execution has been pretty good. We just need some timely baskets as well and we didn’t get those on Saturday. The week before we did. So now there’s the execution phase, but there’s also finishing. That’s an area that we need to make sure that we’re ready to go at it on Saturday.”
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