Thoughts, notes and observations prior to Georgia Tech's 9 p.m. tipoff against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network (WATL in Atlanta) and online on ESPN3.
Odom: Jackets are 'very dangerous'
For my story for myajc and Wednesday’s paper in advance of the Notre Dame game, I spoke with former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, who was the analyst for Tech’s 68-64 win over then-No. 4 Virginia last Saturday.
He was high on coach Brian Gregory moving Marcus Georges-Hunt from the wing to the point and the corresponding move to start Quinton Stephens in Georges-Hunt’s wing spot and having Josh Heath come off the bench to give the starting lineup more size and scoring pop.
“I think Brian is on the right track,” Odom said “I think they’re very dangerous.”
I also asked him if he thought .500 was a reasonable goal for Tech in ACC play. I think coaches and ex-coaches are often hesitant to make declarations like that about other teams, perhaps not wanting to exert external pressure. He said that he didn’t think it was his place to set a goal for the team, but that, based on what he’d seen, Tech can win any game on the schedule.
It’s praise, certainly, but somewhat muted, as presumably any ACC team can beat any other conference team under the right circumstances with the exception of Clemson at North Carolina. (If you were unaware, that game is the lock of locks. The Tar Heels are an inconceivable 58-0 against the Tigers in Chapel Hill, N.C., including an 80-69 win for UNC in the season opener Dec. 30. It's an NCAA record for most consecutive home wins against an opponent. Further, 26 of the past 28 meetings in Chapel Hill have been by double digits. Incredible.)
However, after that, he said something that, to me, was more noteworthy.
“I wouldn’t put a ceiling on what this team is capable of accomplishing,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re going to win the championship, but they’re much improved.”
What Wednesday's game means
Here’s one reason why I am really interested to see what happens Wednesday in South Bend, Ind. Clearly, Tech proved last year it can compete against the ACC. As brutal as the season was (3-15 in league play), the 0-13 record in games decided by seven points or less meant the Jackets had a reasonable chance late in the game to win 16 out of 19 times, including the tournament game. (The three were the 57-28 loss at Virginia and the crushing losses to North Carolina.)
After the first two games this season (road losses to North Carolina and Pittsburgh by a combined 13 points), there was reason to think that this team, while considerably better on offense, still couldn’t knock down the door.
As Gregory put it after losing to North Carolina, “We’re past the point of, Alright, we competed with a really good team. We’ve got to figure out a way to break through and win the game. … I think we’re a much different team. But you’ve got to go out there and prove it.”
Wednesday will provide more clarity on what the win over Virginia meant. Is Tech still a team that can’t hold its own and just got some bounces against Virginia, or are the Jackets truly different and a legitimate threat to make the postseason tournament? (I suppose there’s also a middle answer, that the team is clearly better but still not postseason material.) Chances are, if Tech were to play Virginia again at McCamish, Quinton Stephens wouldn’t go 4-for-4 from 3-point range and Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon wouldn’t make just one of his nine 3-point attempts. And perhaps other bounces and plays that also went Tech’s way might not, either. (The game prompted Virginia coach Tony Bennett to say something I heard Paul Johnson say variations of probably a dozen times this fall: “It is a fine line from being successful to being not successful.”)
Last season, Tech lost 46-45 to Syracuse in the second game of the ACC season. (I remember it for a post-game comment made by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim: “I have to say, I don’t like to get negative. 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.” He meant both teams. Syracuse shot 34.6 percent from the field and Tech was 26.3 percent.) Had Tech won that game, I imagine there would be talk that the Jackets were different. And, perhaps with a confidence booster like that, that could have proven to be the case. Ultimately, though, chances are the story would still have been similar, if not the same.
The numbers say that this team is different. It’s hard to argue otherwise. But, Tech ultimately has to be different not just in offensive efficiency, but in the win-loss column. The result Wednesday won’t answer the question definitively either way, but will continue to reveal the truth about this team. I’m curious to find out.
Challenge for Stephens: Repeat
Stephens' difference-making 16-point game against Virginia was the 13th double-digit scoring game of his career.
His scoring average in the game following the first 12 double-digit games: 3.4 points on 29.1 percent shooting from the field. The scoring range in those games was 0-8. He came off the bench for 10 of the 12 games, so minutes weren’t necessarily abundant, which would make back-to-back double figure games a challenge. That said, his career average is 5.8 points per game and a 37.4 percent shooter. (Gregory said that the lineup will stay the same for Notre Dame, meaning Stephens will get his second start in a row.)
Tech probably doesn’t need Stephens to score 16 points to beat Notre Dame. But it could use seven or eight and one or two 2-pointers along with three or four rebounds. To go back to the last point, if Tech is going to be different, it'll need more from everybody on a more consistent basis. (That said, Stephens has put up better overall numbers in fewer minutes this season already, so this isn't to say Tech had been playing 4 on 5 when he was on the court until this point.)
My colleague Jeff Schultz wrote a column for myajc and Wednesday’s paper that’s worth a read, mostly based off of an interview with Gregory.
A quote from Gregory worth sharing:
“We want to play in the postseason. We would prefer to play in the NCAA tournament.”
This didn’t make it into my story about Georges-Hunt, but was an insight into his game: “I feel a big thing for me is, when I get past the defense, being able to just stop on a dime and just pull up, because everybody always expects me to get all the way to the basket, and I think I did a great job of doing that against Pittsburgh, being able to explode and then just stop on a dime and shoot it.”