March 30, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– There may be no better place to play your best basketball than in Madison Square Garden, where fans are renowned for hopping out of the subway in Penn Station beneath the Manhattan building, grabbing elevators and escalators up to the arena, and showering appreciation – if you play the game the right way.
Win or lose, the MSG clientele appreciates effort and attention to detail.
The Jackets (21-15) are clicking all those boxes and adding polish.
Tech’s offense has been better lately than all season.
In beating CSU Bakersfield, 76-61, Tuesday night to punch a ticket to the NIT championship game Thursday night in MSG against Texas Christian (23-15), the Jackets rolled out the rigid defense that’s made head coach Josh Pastner’s first season good. The recent offense improvement could make it special.
Tech thrashed a heretofore solid defense much of the night, making 25-of-51 shots over the first ¾ of the game before subbing liberally with a large lead.
“We prepared for that for last three or four days of practice with that type of intensity, and the guys did a nice job of only having seven turnovers,” Pastner said. “In the NIT, we have 101 made field goals; 77 of them are assisted …
“I’m a big believer: The open man is the go-to man … we’ve been much better during NIT on transition offense.”
The Jackets have been better offensively since their one-week layoff between an ACC Tournament loss to Pitt and opening the NIT against Indiana in McCamish Pavilion.
With few exceptions, Tech’s defense keeps the Old Gold and White in games. The Jackets rank No. 6 nationally in defensive efficiency, allowing 90.4 points per 100 possessions. TCU head coach Jamie Dixon has studied up, with the help of staffer Tom Herrion, the former Tech assistant, since the Horned Frogs won in the semifinals over Central Florida and 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall.
In a way, Ben Lammers makes the Jackets familiar.
“Both [teams] having a game-changing shot-blocker inside defensively, in Fall obviously, and then Lammers as well,” Dixon said. “Coach Herrion, my assistant, was at Georgia Tech and had told me how good this kid was.
“We had recruited him, looked at him when he was in Texas while I was at Pitt … he is an unbelievable defensive player and he rebounds at the same time … he’s got size, long arms, good timing, and a good feel. We have to go at him like we went at Fall.”
The news out of New York City is that the Jackets are doing so well at the other end of the court – and not just in the Big Apple.
Tech is 16-0 when scoring 70 or more points, with wins over the likes of VCU, North Carolina, Florida State, Notre Dame and Syracuse. In the NIT, the Jackets have added Indiana (75-63), Belmont (71-57), Ole Miss (74-66) and Cal State Bakersfield to that list.
The Roadrunners rank No. 21 nationally in defensive efficiency, giving up 93.9 per 100. Tech scored 76 Tuesday on 69 possessions. A little algebra tells you that’s 110.1 points per 100 possessions, light years more than the Roadrunners typically surrender and well over Tech’s season offensive average of 100.5 per 100.
CSU Bakersfield was one of the nation’s best teams at forcing turnovers. The Jackets had a season-low seven Tuesday. They had nine against Indiana, and eight against Belmont.
In four NIT games, Tech is shooting 47.3 percent vs. 43.6 in 32 games before that. In this run, they have 77 assists and 39 turnovers, a ratio of 1.974-1. Before that, it was 1.098 (481-438).
“I think we’re sharing the ball a lot,” said senior point guard Josh Heath, who has 22 assists and nine turnovers in the NIT. “Coach Pastner’s huge on assists to made field goals … when we come back to the locker room after the game he always reads out how many field goals we had on how many assists.”
Coupled with lock-down defense, Tech’s new offense forms quite a combination.
Fourteen of the top 18-ranked teams in defensive efficiency made the NCAA Tournament, including No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 2 South Carolina, No. 17 North Carolina and No. 18 Oregon – who are all in the Final Four. The defense was real again. The Roadrunners shot just 35 percent in the game. Tech blocked eight shots, heisted six steals and scored 18 points off CSUB’s 15 turnovers.
Tech never trailed against CSUB on the way to a 36-26 halftime lead, as Josh Okogie scored 10 of his game-high 22 points, and the Jackets shot 48.1 percent. Tadric Jackson’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer from about 30 feet was most memorable.
“Our coaches really prepared us to let us know they [were] really going to come at us,” said senior Quinton Stephens. “First day of preparation, started off went from stretching to breaking the press break, and we don’t usually do that … “
Okogie echoed Stephens.
“We had a couple great practices and a great shoot-around on being ball tough and just passing drills and making the right passes, sharpen our passes, and I think we did a good job of transitioning that into the game,” Okogie said. “We had crisp passes.
“Coach told us before the game we had to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and I think we did that early. We knew the press was coming.”
Dixon said of Okogie, “better shooter, maybe, than I thought he was going to be watching him in high school . . . unbelievable athlete and plays very hard, gets to the basket and is always trying to get fouled, get to the free throw line. We’ll try to keep him off the line, make him take jump shots, and keep him off the offensive boards.”
Tech was scarcely threatened in the second half, and every player played in the world’s most famous arena.
Former Yellow Jacket center Rich Yunkus, the leading scorer in school history, relishes having played in the Garden with the Jackets in 1970 and ’71, when Tech finished runner-up in the NIT with a loss to North Carolina.
“The place is so unique. The fans loved basketball; they liked you as long as you played,” he said. “They didn’t care what part of the country you were from. Good, intelligent fans. They’ll let you know where they stand.”
Yunkus’ most recent successor, Lammers, finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked, shots – his 16th double-double of the season – against CSU Bakersfield.
Okogie and Stephens just missed the same as they each had nine rebounds.
And all the newly explosive Jackets loved the experience.
“Beautiful place. High-class arena,” Stephens said after scoring 13 points. “Everyone welcomes you. They wish you good luck. You don’t see that in many arenas.
“Great to get a win here. Great to play here. Just the air; you can’t help but love playing here. It’s a basketball player’s dream.”