Nov. 15, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
As season openers go, Georgia Tech had so much to feel good about after Friday’s 116-81 win over Cornell that the Yellow Jackets’ greatest concern may be improving upon the part of their game that is supposed to be their strength.
Head coach Brian Gregory has pinned his career to defense first with a heavy emphasis on rebounding, yet Tech was at quick glance strafed by the Big Red.
The Jackets surrendered 81 points just three times last season, and it took Notre Dame two overtime periods to hit 83, N.C. State needed overtime to land on 81, and then North Carolina put up 81 in the regular-season finale.
Good thing the Jackets’ new offense was smoking.
The move to increase tempo was a rollicking success, especially when Tech went on a 32-3 run in the second half to blow open a two-point game. With five seniors, three new players in their fourth or fifth years of college, and more versatility than the Jackets have had in years, they were off and running.
“Offensively, we’re much improved and we’re going to keep getting better because our guys are just starting to feel their way on that,” Gregory said. “I’m really pleased with the first game . . . doing a lot of good things with 30 assists, six turnovers, 20 offensive rebounds on only 30 missed shots. That’s pretty good.
“We’ve got to get a lot better defensively, but today was a good step.”
Tech’s numbers are not likely to be so swollen Monday night, when Tennessee (1-0) visits McCamish Pavilion. The SEC squad will bring more size and athleticism than Cornell brought from the Ivy League.
Yet with just one game in the books, it’s obvious that the Jackets have a deeper inventory of players and options than Gregory had in his first four seasons.
When is the last time Tech had a sharpshooter like Adam Smith, the guard from Jonesboro who started and scored 13 points on just 11 shots even though he was just 2-of-4 from the free throw line?
He made 3-of-6 3-pointers, and added five assists. That was more assists than he had in a game last season for Virginia Tech, and the long balls were no surprise. He led the ACC last season with a 42.4 percent mark from distance.
The fact that Smith is 6-feet-1 matters less because he’s so crafty, and he’s worked tirelessly for years to fashion a lightning-quick shot release.
“He’s been doing that his whole life as a small guard,” said assistant coach Tom Herrion. “He’s the consummate, ‘guard.’ He’s been able to get shots off his whole life despite being undersized.”
Smith is in a way bigger than 6-1 when he’s on the floor because he can tilt an opposing defense whether the ball is in his hands or not.
“It’s definitely going to help the guys around him because now teams have to concentrate on where he’s at at all times,” said assistant Chad Dollar. “That kid has been surprising me since he left high school, to be honest with you. I didn’t think he was going to be the player that he is now.
“But the thing that he does that gets lost in recruiting is he works; he really works. His commitment to getting better has surprised me a little bit. You can never underestimate a guy who can make shots.”
Tech pounded Cornell with all kinds of versatility.
In addition to making 8-of-23 3-point shots – or more makes than in all but three games last season – the Jackets’ big men were nearly perfect.
Charles Mitchell (21 points), James White (14), Nick Jacobs (12) and Ben Lammers (six) combined to score 53, and Tech overwhelmed in the paint, 64-28. Mitchell made 10-of-11 shots, White 6-of-7, Jacobs 6-of-9 and Lammers 3-of-3. That’s 25-of-30, a huge part of Tech’s 60.3 percent overall shooting (47-of-78).
One game against an Ivy League opponent does not a season make, but it’s evidence to believe that the Jackets are better positioned offensively than last season, when they were last in the ACC in shooting percentage (40.8), 3-point shooting (26.7) and 3-pointers made per game (4.2).
That tempo, combined with depth, looks to make this a much better team.
“They’ve got seniors galore, and we don’t have a senior who plays,” said Cornell coach Bill Courtney. “They’re a much improved ball club over last season.”
Dig deeper, and Tech’s defensive numbers don’t look as bad.
With the goal of playing faster, and with the shot clock being 30 seconds this season rather than 35, the Jackets will have more possessions and take more shots.
So, too, will opponents.
The Jackets found their greatest success in the second half, when Gregory began deploying smaller lineups. That enabled Tech to better defend Cornell.
In the first half, the Big Red shot 51.6 percent and made 8-of-18 treys while scoring 1.4 points per possession. In the second half, they shot 41.4 percent, made 5-of-13 3-pointers, and scored 0.8 points per possession.
Get used to the mixing and matching. Gregory’s going to pull strings.
Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes may not go big Monday. In the Vols’ 82-78 win Friday over UNC-Ashville, their leading scorers were 6-2 senior guard Kevin Punter (31 points), 6-4 junior guard Robert Hobbs III (18) and 6-4 senior forward Amani Moore (12).
“We’re going to have to play different ways,” Gregory explained. “We went smaller in the second half, and guys have to be OK with that because we’ve got to figure out the best chance to be successful. It helped our ball-screen coverage, and we wore them down a little. There will be games we have to play big, too.”