Jan. 17, 2018
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– Josh Pastner and the Yellow Jackets will get a chance Thursday night to look through a window and see their future, or at least that which the boss envisions, when No. 2 Virginia becomes the highest-ranked opponent on The Flats since No. 2 North Carolina de-camped 10 years ago almost to the day.
Yet they’re trying not to look past the sold-out game in McCamish Pavilion.
Nobody should get hung up on the fact that Virginia is No. 1 in the ACC defensively and that Tech is No. 2 – at least if you think that’s a reason to consider the Jackets a potential winner — because a dive into numbers reveals that they may not be that close to each other.
Oh, and never mind that Tech’s next four games will be against Virginia, No. 15/14 North Carolina, Florida State (which is just outside the top 25) and No. 20/18 Clemson, because Pastner’s sure not dwelling on such things.
Again, that would be too much looking ahead.
Tech’s head coach is locked in on the here and now. So, he wants a roster that “gets old and stays old,” as he has said time and again, and, well, here’s Virginia.
— Georgia Tech Sports (@GTAthletics) January 17, 2018
The Cavaliers will probably start a fifth-year senior, a senior, a fourth-year junior and two sophomores while bringing a key graduate student off the bench in McCamish Pavilion.
And that’s not all Pastner likes about Virginia.
More than the Cavs’ experience, he values the way Virginia (16-1, 5-0 ACC) plays serious defense under head coach Tony Bennett, and protects the ball like hoarders.
That defense. Pastner and the Jackets (10-7, 3-1) really admire that defense.
Virginia leads the nation in scoring defense (52.9 points allowed per game) and is second in field goal defense (36.4 percent allowed).
The Cavs are No. 1 in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. A lot of gobbledy-gook that goes into that calculation, and Pastner loves all of it.
“I think this is probably Tony Bennett’s most athletic and long team,” Pastner said. “To beat Virginia you’re going to have to beat Virginia. They’re not going to beat themselves.
“You’re not going to be able to get real cute, or out-scheme anybody. At the end, you’re going to have to make some shots. They’re sort of like us; they make the game slow.”
— Georgia Tech Sports (@GTAthletics) January 16, 2018
Tech is No. 2 in the ACC in scoring defense, behind Virginia, while allowing 57.3 points per conference game to the Cavs’ 54.2.
Yet the Jackets have faced the lowest-scoring team in the league (Pitt), the No. 11-scoring team twice (Notre Dame, including one game where the Irish were without their two leading scorers) and No. 10 Miami.
No matter the opponents, Tech’s defense has improved lately, if not yet matching last season’s “elite” status, to use Pastner’s words.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that the Jackets have become healthier, there are no longer player suspensions in play, and all the noise of the early season surrounding the program has dissipated.
Josh Okogie has gotten louder, too. It’s not that he was ever quiet, but as the team’s leading scorer missed the first eight games because of suspension and injury, his voice didn’t resonate quite as loudly in the locker room as it reverberates now.
“Obviously, the chemistry has grown. Being with everybody on the court, whether you’re playing or not, that’s always something that’s going to happen,” said the sophomore guard. “I think we’re really feeling each other now.
“I feel like when I wasn’t playing, you learn a lot from the outside looking in, and there’s only so much you can tell somebody. But when you’re finally back on the court, you can show guys the way to do things, kind of give them a back to lean on.”
Okogie’s return has helped, and on top of the fact that the Cavs have lost two of their past three visits to McCamish Pavilion, the Jackets may be better equipped not only physically, but psychologically to deal with the Wahoos than they would have been a month ago.
Yes, they’ve won four consecutive games and become just the third Tech team in the shot clock era (since 1985) to hold four consecutive opponents under 60 points in wins over Miami, Yale, Notre Dame and Pitt.
Perhaps more importantly, they feel whole.
“We were able to get healthy, we were able to get practice and we’ve been able to get better,” Pastner said. “Literally, we had seven teams in two months, a month and a half … there was just constant moving pieces. I felt like it was seven different teams.”
Virginia is one team first and foremost: a defensive team.
The Jackets are No. 2 in the ACC in scoring defense, yet there are differences between Tech and Virginia.
Tech ranks No. 42 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, and No. 6 in the ACC behind fellow league members Virginia, Miami (No. 6), Syracuse (No. 11), North Carolina (No. 12), Clemson (No. 15), Florida State (No. 34) and Notre Dame (No. 38).
Virginia’s number one defensive protagonist figures to be senior forward Isiaiah Wilkins. The 6-foot-7 stepson of Atlanta Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins was tabbed last season to the ACC’s All-Defensive team, and he remains a pest.
Wilkins graduated from Greater Atlanta Christian School, which just a couple years earlier sent ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon – and 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year — to Charlottesville.
Brogdon, like Wilkins, played out his college years.
That’s what Pastner’s aiming for at Georgia Tech.
And the Jackets are closer to that than you might think, which might give them a better chance than you might think at beating Virginia.
Truth be told, the Jackets have more young players than old, yet they’re playing more of the aged. Pastner’s rotation has shortened, and he’s generally playing two seniors (Ben Lammers and Tadric Jackson), a graduate student (Brandon Alston), a fourth-year junior who’s 23 (Abdoulaye Gueye), plus sophomore (Josh Okogie) and freshmen Jose Alvarado and Curtis Haywood II.
Maybe it won’t come down to experience, where the teams are close. Perhaps it will be chemistry.
“I think we’re really feeling each other now,” Okogie said. “It’s going to be a really fun game to see who’