Thoughts and observations from Georgia Tech's 46-45 loss to Syracuse Wednesday night.
1. After the game, coach Brian Gregory made an interesting admission, if that’s the word, about his team.
“We’re not going to shoot the ball that well,” he said.
It isn’t exactly a secret – the Jackets are No. 284 in the country in effective shooting percentage (which weights 3-point shots) in Division I, according to teamrankings.com. They’re second to last among power conference teams. Their 3-point shooting percentage is last, at 23.4 percent.
But Gregory is typically optimistic and, while I haven’t heard or remember every word that he’s said about his team’s offense in the past four seasons, I don’t recall him saying something quite so definitive about his team's ability to shoot.
It is hard to argue, though. Tech is just not a very good jump-shooting team and, more broadly, grinds on offense. It’s strange – at times, the offense can look disciplined and create open shots. In the first half, the Jackets ran a play where forwards Charles Mitchell and Robert Sampson both came to the elbows at the same time. The ball was passed into Mitchell, who fed Sampson as he cut to the basket for an easy score. There’s possessions like that where it’s clear they know how to play offense. But then there’s others where 3-pointers get tossed up haphazardly or the shot clock winds down and the ball is in the wrong hands or passes are made carelessly.
It was on display Wednesday night. The Jackets shot 26.3 percent from the field against Syracuse, the lowest shooting percentage of Gregory’s tenure. Tech was 5-for-29 in the second half, 17.2 percent. The Jackets scored 18 points in 27 second-half possessions.
"A lot of games we’ve played this year end up coming down to the last eight minutes. It’s just about making the right plays and executing what coaches draw up in the huddle," forward Marcus Georges-Hunt said.
Syracuse clearly had plenty to do with it. The Orange’s ability to challenge shots both on the perimeter and in the post caused problems. They’re No. 16 in the country in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. But Kennesaw State, Colgate and Hampton, among others, shot better percentage-wise against Syracuse than Tech did Wednesday night.
“We need to take another step so we’re in position to finish the games,” Gregory said. “Disappointing, but again, in this league, you’ve got to play well for 40 minutes and unfortunately, there were pockets there where we didn’t.”
Boeheim was asked what he was anticipating from Tech on its final possession, begun with 12.
“We were just playing the percentages that they weren’t going to make a shot because they hadn’t made any,” Boeheim said. “We didn’t want to let ’em get it inside. We wanted them to throw it out and, if they make a three, then it’s just one of those things.”
Marcus Georges-Hunt got the ball, but was blocked off. He passed out to guard Chris Bolden, whose 3-pointer missed. Forward Quinton Stephens missed the putback try as time expired.
2. All that said, Tech nearly won the game. All the Jackets needed was one more basket or one more stop and they would have had one of their most significant home wins in Gregory’s tenure.
As poorly as the offense functioned, the defense gave Syracuse plenty of problems. Chris Bolden was determined in his defense of sharpshooter Trevor Cooney, limiting him to nine points, four below his average. Forward Rakeem Christmas scored 18 points, but shot 7-for-17 (41.2 percent, 20 percentage points below his average) with Demarco Cox and Mitchell defending him.
Syracuse is not a great offensive team, either, but Tech held the Orange to the same 18 second-half points on 27 possessions.
It produced the line of the night from coach Jim Boeheim.
“I don’t like to get negative,” he said. “I’m trying to change my posture. Without a doubt, the worst offensive game I’ve ever seen. I can’t say anything else. I mean, literally. I mean, really. I just can’t even describe it.”
3. So Tech is 0-2 in ACC play after having taken the then-No. 14 (and now No. 13) team to double overtime on its own court and then losing in a one-possession game to a possible NCAA tournament team.
Had the Jackets scrounged up one more point in regulation against Notre Dame and two more Wednesday night, they’d be 2-0 and, essentially the same team. (This line of thinking reminds me of the Rudyard Kipling poem “If” – “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same”) But they’d be two big steps closer to a postseason berth, for one thing. (Full disclosure: I'm not nearly as well-read as my reference might make it appear. I think I learned that poem from a Shaquille O'Neal commercial.) (Which I think is pretty much the exact opposite of well-read.)
I wrote a blog in December about how I thought Tech could go 9-9 in the ACC, which could put them in position to make the NIT. I wasn’t counting on Tech to win either of the first two games, but they would have been great to steal, certainly, as you can’t necessarily count on the nine I think the Jackets have a good shot to win, plus I think nine might be the minimum to be in the conversation. Further, if Gregory’s assertion that this team is different and better than his previous teams, it’s got to win games like these past two to effectively demonstrate that.
But, also, the perception of the team would be vastly different despite the team being just three points better. Rather than the offensive warts being the focus, it’d be the team’s defensive and rebounding prowess. It would look a lot more like things were being turned around. Were the team able to get to 3-0 with a win over Wake Forest on Saturday, I’d guess it’d be possible that Tech might even get some votes in the polls.
All is hardly not lost, obviously. I think the team is going to get better as Travis Jorgenson is able to play longer and his burst continues to return. His 2.3 assist/turnover ratio is tied for ninth in the ACC. He is effective a) at leading the break; b) feeding the post, which are two of the most important skills this team needs, as a) the offense has clear troubles in the halfcourt and needs as many easy points as possible; b) the team's best scoring chances are going to come from Mitchell and Cox in the post.
If the Jackets can rebound and defend the way it has through 14 games and just get marginally better on offense, you'd think the results should come. It might not look pretty, but I wouldn’t be surprised.