By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
- It seems appropriate in this weird season that Georgia Tech is opening the ACC against back-to-back mirror images, first at Notre Dame and tonight against No. 15 Miami, because the Yellow Jackets find themselves peering into a looking glass in search of themselves. And, the Fighting Irish and Hurricanes provide guides.
Tech fell 68-59 at Notre Dame last Saturday, when the defense vanished in the second half after a stellar first, and Miami is playing defense like the Jackets did and want to again.
In the Irish, Tech head coach Josh Pastner sees a program built with the bricks and mortar that he wants to use on The Flats. Before and after that game, he referenced Notre Dame and fellow ACC foe Virginia repeatedly as his models.
He relishes the way both teams value the ball and rarely turn it over, usually make their free throws and generally win. And that’s not all.
Pastner wants his team to be like these ACC brothers more than he does, say, North Carolina and Duke. Why? Well, because the likelihood of Tech recruiting the one-and-done megawatt future NBA studs, is more remote.
So, he chases Notre Dame and Virginia, “and in order to do that, we’ve got to get old and stay old,” he said. “That’s going to happen through multiple recruiting classes.”
That’s not Tech (6-7, 0-1 ACC), not yet.
Of the 2,600 combined minutes played so far this season, 974 – or 37.5 percent – have been played by true freshmen.
Among Jose Alvarado, Curtis Haywood II, Moses Wright and Evan Cole, none of these players arrived at Tech as a McDonald’s High School All-America player. This number would be even higher if Haywood, a starter, wasn’t about to miss his sixth straight game with a shin injury.
We’ll circle back to the matter of experience on the roster, and to Pastner’s Malcolm Model at the very end, but first transition to the Miami (12-1) mirror – which is more about the here and now.
Pastner could throw the Hurricanes in with Notre Dame and Virginia and they would fit. They’re not flashy under sixth-year head coach Jim Larranaga, just steady as flint, and playing defense like Tech last season.
They’re allowing 58.5 points per game, ranking No. 2 nationally behind Virginia (52.8), they’re No. 4 in field goal defense (36.8 percent allowed), and No. 6 in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.
Nearly all of Tech’s defensive metrics have slipped since last season. Having played the softest third of their schedule, the Jackets are allowing 65.1 points (T-37), 40.8 percent shooting (No. 70), and a whopping 38.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc (312).
Their KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency ranking is No. 77.
Last season, it was No. 6.
What may frustrate Pastner most beyond the injuries and suspensions endured by the Jackets this season is their inconsistencies.
They made life difficult on Notre Dame in the first half, moving to a 28-23 lead.
Then, the Irish nearly doubled their point total in the second half with 45.
And that wasn’t a first. Tech has struggled to mirror halves.
That was the third game in the past four where an opponent cranked it up late. Georgia scored 44 points after halftime, and then Wright State tallied 54 in the second half in Tech losses.
“I feel like we had energy, guys were flying around defending, making effort plays [in the first half], and I feel we’ve got to roll that over to the second half like we do in the first half,” said senior guard Tadric Jackson.
“It’s not about [making] the first shot. It’s about that stop. We’ve got to come out, and we can’t let teams come into the second half with the confidence that they’ll hit a big 3 or a dunk right away. Get that first stop, a score and the second stop that we haven’t done, I feel like we’ll be in a better position.”
Perhaps Tech’s offensive struggles are causing defensive strife.
Josh Okogie, last season’s leading scorer, missed the first eight games with an NCAA suspension and a dislocated left index finger. Jackson endured a three-game NCAA suspension. Backup point guard Justin Moore was suspended for two games, and missed two more to tend to a death in his extended family.
Haywood, who’s shot 50 percent from 3-point territory and played better-than-expected 3-point defense, has missed five games with a shin injury.
And center Ben Lammers is just now rounding back into shape and rhythm after wrenching an ankle in the second game of the season and then going more than a month without practice only to play below par in games.
Add the fact that the Jackets keep missing an uncanny number of close-range shots, and Pastner thinks that bleeds into defensive lapses as games wear down.
“We missed so many point-blank layups it’s deflating. It’s deflating when you miss wide-open shots at eight feet. It’s deflating,” the coach said. “I think it carries over. When you’re open, and you’re right by the basket and you miss a layup, I think it can be deflating.
“I’ve always said this: defense is about effort, but if you go so long without scoring you lose your energy in a sense.”
Tech is not going to get older and more experienced overnight.
Lammers and Jackson are the Jackets’ seniors.
Lammers hasn’t been right but for one game all season. Jackson missed three while suspended, and also battled an ankle injury, yet has been Tech’s most effective scorer per minutes played by a good margin.
The Jackets have struggled to score from the power forward spot with Abdoulaye Gueye, Wright and Cole. Gueye moved back into the starting spot at Notre Dame because he is the top defender among the three.
Bottom line, the Jackets have had a lot of injuries and suspensions, and new players have played a bunch of minutes.
Tech has sagged at both ends of the floor through the process.
Guard Brandon Alston is a graduate of Lehigh University, yet a newcomer at Tech. Counting his 323 minutes and the combined 12 by walk-on players, 1,297 minutes have been played by first-year players. That’s 50.3 percent.
And not one second of that time was credited to a player forecast for the NBA.
This is a good time to re-connect with the Virginia model, and consider former Cavaliers standout Malcolm Brogdon.
Recruited out of Gwinnett County and Greater Atlanta Christian School, the guard averaged 6.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists as a freshman for the Cavaliers in 2011-12. He started one game. One.
After redshirting with an injury as a sophomore, Brogdon improved steadily and as a senior in 2015-16 he was a consensus All-American, and the first player in ACC history to win both Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Still, the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him in the second round.
And then he became the first player in the NBA to win the Rookie of the Year award after being drafted in the second round – after five years in college.
That’s the Pastner player.
The young coach wants to get old and stay old.
And get back to playing defense.
“Our first half we were excellent defensively [at Notre Dame]. Excellent,” Pastner said. “We went on a drought where we just couldn’t score. But we will get better as time goes ...
“Miami, you look at their numbers ... I think for us to have a chance to win, if it’s a pretty and finesse game that’s not going to be, we’re not a real pretty and finesse team. We’re going to have to grind it out a little bit.”