Previewing Georgia Tech's ACC opener against North Carolina, noon Saturday on the ACC Network (WATL-36 in Atlanta).
Rough draw for opener
Of Tech’s 12 pre-expansion ACC opponents (including Maryland), North Carolina is one of three that the Jackets have not beaten in Gregory’s tenure and the one that has by far given them the hardest time. In six games against North Carolina, Tech has lost by an average of 19 points. All have been by double digits, including the 29-point beating last year in Chapel Hill, N.C., (the Tar Heels’ first home game following Dean Smith’s death with the building full of former players) and a 32-point loss in the regular-season finale when Marcus Georges-Hunt broke his foot early in the game.
Gregory is 0-5 against Duke, but two losses were by a combined 13 points, and is 0-4 against Florida State. Two of those losses were by a combined six points.
North Carolina’s speed and ability to turn turnovers into points have helped make the Tar Heels the toughest matchup for Tech and Gregory, although Virginia might quibble with that.
Of the four additions – Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville, Tech is 1-3 against the Irish (the three defeats were all by single digits), 0-2 against Pittsburgh (both by single digits), 1-1 against Syracuse (a one-point loss) and 0-1 against Louisville (also a one-point defeat).
Heels can score
North Carolina has the most efficient offense in the country, according to kenpom.com. Adjusted for schedule, the Tar Heels average 1.196 points per possession while giving up .974 points (64th). Tech’s offense is ranked No. 61 (1.082) and the defense is ranked 112th (.999).
It is atypical for Gregory and will bear watching as the ACC season progresses. In his first four seasons, the offense has had an average rank of 216th while the defense’s average rank has been 61st, including 29th last season. Should the Jackets falter this season, it would be a little ironic if it were because their defense lagged.
It reminds me of a famed story about the hapless 1962 New York Mets – center fielder Richie Ashburn kept colliding with shortstop Elio Chacon because Ashburn called “I got it!” but Chacon only spoke Spanish. So Ashburn learned the Spanish equivalent (Yo la tengo) and called off Chacon in a game by using the phrase, only to collide with his left fielder, Frank Thomas (not the White Sox Frank Thomas), who didn't understand what Ashburn was saying. According to Wikipedia (which cited an Ashburn biography), after Thomas and Ashburn got up, Thomas asked Ashburn, “What the (heck) is a yellow tango?”
The band Yo La Tengo took its name from that story, you might be interested to learn.
Could Tech be better?
This is not to compare Tech with one of the worst teams in baseball history (the first Mets team ever finished 40-120). I think the Jackets have a chance to be competitive in the ACC. I mostly go back to the fact that, despite their 3-15 record, they were 0-13 in games decided by seven points or less, and this team is much more capable offensively than last year’s. (The defense remains a question, as noted.)
If they can avoid injuries and get some of the breaks that they couldn’t make for themselves last season, I think it’s possible they could win eight or nine games.
One reason why this team could be better – its assist/turnover ratio is 1.4, 33rd in the country. (The Jackets were 232rd last year at .92.) It means that Tech is more effective offensively – the Jackets have assisted on 53 percent of their baskets this season, compared to 48 percent in their 13 non-conference games last year. It also means that, by giving up the ball less, they’re giving up fewer possessions and also not giving them away in ways that often lead to transition opportunities.
The reduced turnover rate “has been a big key, because we’re a good offensive rebounding team,” Gregory said, “so the most important thing to do is to get shots up on goal, and we’ve been able to do that.”
Assist/turnover ratio is a pretty good marker for success. Of the top 33 teams in that category last season, 28 won 20 or more games and another three won 18 or 19 games. Only two had losing records. By comparison, of the top 33 teams in rebound margin, 26 won 20 or more games and five had losing records (including Tech).
That said, this could be a rough start for Tech. North Carolina is No. 7 in the AP poll. Tech goes there to Pittsburgh, No. 23 in RPI. Then, home against Virginia, which is No. 5 in the poll and ripped the Jackets apart last year. Then, to Notre Dame, the defending conference champion. Tech could play well and still be 0-4.
Meeks likely out
Tech will get a break, as North Carolina likely will be without center Kennedy Meeks, who is averaging 12.3 points and 7.4 rebounds this season. Meeks is recovering from a bone bruise. He scored 26 points in two games against Tech last fall.
Guard Justin Jackson is the only player who scored in double digits in both games for UNC against Tech, combining for 24 points on 11-for-20 shooting, 11 rebounds, eight assists and one turnover. Jackson is averaging 13.4 points and 4.1 rebounds this season.