1. Freshman guard Tadric Jackson started in place of guard Chris Bolden, who was suspended indefinitely for “not adhering to the standards of our program,” coach Brian Gregory said. “We have high expectations for our student-athletes and he hasn’t met those expectations at this time.”
Bolden had played in all 25 games and had started 11 games, including the previous seven before Monday’s game.
Jackson has played sporadic minutes, has not shot the ball well and has made mistakes on defense typical of a freshman. But he has impressed Gregory with his attitude and was showing signs of improvement. He gave him the start Monday, as a result, and Jackson responded.
“He hasn’t stopped fighting in practice, he hasn’t stopped working on his game to get better and I like that about that kid,” Gregory said. “He gave us some juice tonight, there’s no doubt about it. He makes a gazillion mistakes on defense, but he competed on defense, which was important for us.”
Jackson made two of eight shots, but his impact on the outcome was unquestionable. He finished with five assists with one turnover in 29 minutes. Jackson had had 16 assists in 280 minutes of play this season prior to Monday. His strength is scoring, though that trait hasn’t revealed itself often thus far, which has flummoxed Gregory, a strong believer in Jackson's scoring touch.
Monday, though, he looked more like a point guard than anything, driving and finding center Demarco Cox, leading the break and working screen and rolls.
“He was just thinking about winning the game, because before the game, he said to me, ‘If you’re open, I’m going to give it to you,” said Cox, who scored 12 on 6-for-8 shooting. “He meant his word when he said it.”
Interestingly, four of his five assists led to baskets for Cox. I’d say he played about as well as you could hope for someone in his circumstance – first career start and trying to help his team snap out of a major funk.
“He kind of plays with a confidence that he not only belongs out there, but maybe belongs on the top of the heap,” Gregory said. “And maybe we need that. And I like that about him.”
What he said next was eye-opening.
“As his development as a player and his consistency as a player matches that (confidence), I think he has a chance to be one of the best players in this league,” he said. “I really do, before it’s all said and done.”
That I can recall, he’s only spoken in similar terms about Daniel Miller and Marcus Georges-Hunt. Worth sticking away.
The next challenge for Jackson is backing it up, this time against a more formidable opponent – at No. 15 North Carolina on Saturday. (As things would have it, it will be the Tar Heels’ first home game since the death of Dean Smith Feb. 7.)
2. Particularly in the second half, the ball moved effectively; Tech had 15 assists, about three above its season average. Cox and forward Charles Mitchell and Robert Sampson all had assists, the first time that has happened in a game.
In the second half, Jackets shot 50 percent from the field, and 10 of their 15 baskets were off assists. They were at their best (as would stand to reason) during a 14-0 run over a four-minute stretch that took the game from a 32-all tie to 46-32 and went a long way towards putting the game away.
Tech's 46.3 percent field-goal shooting was its fourth highest rate of the season. Its Nos. 1, 3 and 6 games have also come in the past seven games.
Gregory was also pleased with his team’s defensive play, particularly in the first half when Tech held Clemson to 10-for-27 shooting (37.0 percent), including 1-for-7 from 3-point range (though Clemson seemed a bit cold). Tech outrebounded Clemson 38-29, led by Sampson’s 10 rebounds, followed by Cox’s nine.
“We just didn’t play with the kind of life that you have to play with if you’re going to beat this team,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “This team is much better than their ACC record shows. When you watch film of their team, they’re competing extremely hard against everybody in our league. They’re playing them down to the last two minutes, the last possession. They’re much better than 3-11. Brian and his guys are doing a lot better job than what most people think. Especially getting those kids to compete as hard as they’re competing right now.”
3. It’s hard to say what difference this win will make in the bigger picture of the season, though I imagine it’s not a great concern for Gregory or his players at the moment. Losing as often and in the way that they have has been wearing, undoubtedly. In talking about Jackson, he said it has been difficult to find him minutes “when you’re fighting for your life in all those close games.” Beating anyone by playing well was most welcome. That the opponent was Clemson, which had beaten the Jackets in 10 consecutive games, often by narrow margins, made it all the more sweet.
In thanking the fans and students who attended the game despite the weather concerns, Gregory said that “it made for a nice evening, I can’t lie to you.”
Tech’s closing stretch: at North Carolina, Louisville, at Clemson, North Carolina. Gregory has not beaten the Tar Heels in four attempts, the Jackets have not won at Clemson in the past nine trips and Louisville has only lost to one team outside the RPI top 11 (N.C. State).
It is a bit of a rough road home. Tech's strength of schedule, by RPI metrics is ranked No. 22 in the country. It should improve (or worsen, depending on your perspective) noticeably by the end of the regular season.