Georgia Tech has made it through 12 games at 8-4, which is better than most might have expected. The Yellow Jackets have fallen hard a few times, most notably in decisive defeats against Tennessee and Georgia, games when the offense was as feeble as had been forecast. But Tech also pulled a road upset of VCU, a hint of what the Jackets are capable when just about all the pieces fit together.
On Saturday, however, the climb steepens considerably. No. 9 North Carolina visits McCamish Pavilion to begin Tech’s 18-game ACC conference schedule, a slate that includes seven games against teams in the Top 25 and 11 against RPI top-35 teams. The Tar Heels will be followed by No. 6 Louisville and No. 5 Duke in a most dastardly welcome for first-year coach Josh Pastner.
Two metrics websites — kenpom.com and teamrankings.com —project Tech to go 3-15 in league play. In interviews with the AJC, three coaches whose teams have played Tech this season didn’t give a win-loss prediction, but generally shared similar outlooks for the Jackets. Tech is doing the right things with Pastner, but the Jackets are indeed facing a most rigorous challenge.
“They seem to understand their roles, and some of the roles are just bigger than they should be right now,” Ohio coach Saul Phillips said. “But what are you going to do?”
The coaches like what Tech has done on defense, particularly in changing up its zone defenses. Alcorn State coach Montez Robinson, whose team lost 74-50 to Tech on Dec. 18, said his players were telling him that the switching of defensive looks from possession to possession was putting them on their heels.
“They give you some different looks than the traditional 2-3 zone,” Wofford coach Mike Young said. “Now it turns into a 2-3, but because of the front (of the zone), it starts as a 1-1-3, it almost can look like a 1-3-1. What can happen is you’re trying to figure out what they’re doing, now you’re at 18 on the shot clock and that’s a rushed possession.”
Tech ranked 46th nationally in defensive field-goal percentage at 39.1 percent after Thursday’s games, sixth among ACC teams. It was 42.9 percent last season after non-conference play, albeit against a more rigorous schedule.
Tech ranked 66th in adjusted defensive efficiency going into Friday’s games, according to kenpom.com. That’s better than Notre Dame, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Boston College and Pittsburgh.
Phillips, whose Bobcats team relied on 3-point shooting (10-for-22) to beat Tech 67-61 on Nov. 18, likes the length of players such as guard Josh Okogie and forward Abdoulaye Gueye. He called Tech above average on defense.
“I think their defense will keep them in a few more games than some people might think,” Phillips said.
The three coaches also noted the effort that Tech’s players gave against their teams.
“I’ll say this, too — he has those kids believing,” Wofford’s Young said. “They play their faces off. They play really, really hard.”
Phillips caught something of Tech’s demeanor after the game.
“You see first-year coaches, sometimes you go through the handshake line and there’s kids grumbling the whole way through and you can see in their eyes, they don’t believe a bit of what’s going on,” he said. “That doesn’t seem to be the case at all.”
They raved about center Ben Lammers, who ranks tied for third in the ACC in double-doubles with six and second nationally in blocks per game at 3.8. But they also noted the lack of depth in the frontcourt and the team’s heavy dependence on him.
“I would definitely go inside the whole time and try to get Lammers in foul trouble,” Alcorn State’s Robinson said.
The undeniable challenge is the Jackets’ ability to score. Tech was ranked 272nd in adjusted offensive efficiency before Friday’s games by kenpom.com. To compare, 13 of the other 15 teams were ranked 80th or better after Thursday’s games. Moreover, four ACC teams are rated in the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency and eight are in the top 50. If Tech can barely break 40 against Georgia, what are the Jackets going to do against Louisville or Virginia, two of the best defensive teams in the country?
“Offensively, you don’t have a whole lot of just natural scorers out there,” Phillips said.
It was evident in Tech’s most recent game, when the Jackets wore out the rims by shooting 39.6 percent from the field in scraping out a 59-52 win over North Carolina A&T, which was 1-11 entering the game and hadn’t won a non-conference game on the road since January 2013. The Jackets’ lack of scoring punch — they were saved by graduate transfer Kellen McCormick’s 12 points on 4-for-5 shooting from 3-point range — nearly led to a disastrous loss.
“I think from the guard spot, they’ve got to shoot it a little bit better,” Robinson said.
Okogie has a fan in Ohio’s Phillips — “He’s flipping good,” he said — but he has also been wildly inconsistent, as might be expected for a freshman.
Robinson said that Tech had a chance to finish as high as eighth in the ACC largely on the basis of its defense and Lammers. But without better shooting from the perimeter, which can open up defenses and ease pressure off Lammers, “that can push ’em back from being ninth or 10th in the league back to 14, 15, if they’re not able to make the shots.”
It would not be unexpected. Tech was picked 14th in the preseason ACC media poll. But, at least publicly, none of the three coaches were ready to write off the Jackets, and especially not long-term.
“They’ve got some holes, let’s be honest,” Wofford’s Young said. “Josh knew that going in. But I will say this. He’s giving them every opportunity to succeed.”