By Andy Demetra
- Josh Pastner said it repeatedly in the month of December, more an acknowledgement of reality than an airing of grievances.
“We’ve got to get better on defense,” Georgia Tech’s second-year head coach said.
Indeed, at times the Yellow Jackets looked like a shadow of the team that finished sixth nationally in defensive efficiency in 2017. But now, as the calendar has turned to ACC play and the Yellow Jackets have a full roster again, they’ve started to return to their hounding, hard-to-solve ways.
That continued Wednesday when Tech upended No. 25 Notre Dame 60-53 to move to 9-7 on the year. Even more impressive, the Yellow Jackets’ three opponents during their winning streak - Notre Dame, Yale and Miami - all suffered their lowest offensive efficiency rating of the season.
Can the Jackets (9-7, 2-1 ACC) continue their straitjacket ways when they face Pittsburgh (8-9, 0-4 ACC) on Saturday? Here are the top five notes from my chart in preparation for this weekend’s contest at the Petersen Events Center (2 p.m. EST, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network):
— GT Men's Basketball (@GTMBB) January 13, 2018
Pastner: “We’re in Year Two of a major rebuild.”
Kevin Stallings: “Hold my I.C. Light.”
Stallings, like Pastner, is in his second season at Pitt following a successful run at a school in Tennessee. Unlike Pastner, he’s dealt with an almost unprecedented turnover on his roster in Year Two. The Panthers feature an NCAA-high 11 newcomers. They’ve started five freshmen in each of the last three games, including an 87-52 loss to Duke on Wednesday. On Thursday, the team announced that senior forward Ryan Luther (12.7 ppg, 10.1 rpg), one of Pitt’s two returning scholarship players, will miss the rest of the season with a stress reaction in his foot.
Stallings, though, has long been known for the pliability of his scheme, and his knack for adjusting to each team’s defensive tendencies. Freshman-heavy or not, his offense still features a head-spinning array of slips, counters, duck-ins, and false action that can be tricky to prepare for. Junior-college transfer Jared Wilson-Frame (team-high 13.1 ppg) has come off the bench lately, but will shoot threes often. Point guard Marcus Carr (10.6 ppg) is an assertive creator, and 6-6 Shamiel Stevenson (9.9 ppg) brings a muscular athleticism to the wing. In the absence of Luther, the Panthers have turned to rangy forwards like 6-9 Kene Chukwuka and 6-10 Terrell Brown to scrap for points off stickbacks.
Also, prepare for threes. Lots of them. Similar to Stallings’ teams at Vanderbilt, 46 percent of the Panthers’ field goal attempts come from three-point range, the highest percentage in the league. For a young, developing team, they can be the quickest life hack for an upset.
Pittsburgh has struggled with teams that deny hard on defense. That’s not necessarily in the Jackets’ DNA. Can Georgia Tech not get lulled by the Panthers’ nonstop motion, and stay in shape to challenge their three-point shooters?
Abdoulaye Gueye is a self-described cutthroat fantasy basketball GM, playing in a league that includes current and former Georgia Tech players.
Were he available, he might want to pick himself up. On Wednesday, Gueye had as many points (eight) as he had in his entire ACC career entering the season. The redshirt junior ceded his minutes down the stretch to Curtis Haywood against Notre Dame, but can he continue to use his 7-3 wingspan to close the airspace on Pitt’s shooters?
In another nod to its youth, Pitt has the highest turnover rate on offense and the lowest turnover rate on defense in the ACC. Not surprisingly, that has created some sizable gaps in points off turnovers during ACC play:
Pitt - Points off turnovers differential
vs. Miami: -11 (16-5)
vs. Louisville: -9 (14-5)
vs. Virginia Tech: -15 (22-7)
vs. Duke: -20 (30-10)
Pastner has stressed to his team to take care of the ball “like it’s your firstborn child” during Tech’s winning streak. Josh Okogie in particular has obliged: the sophomore has only committed one turnover across 78 minutes in Tech’s ACC wins. Can the Yellow Jackets continue to heed their coach’s advice in an area where the Panthers typically struggle? And can players like Okogie – who quietly tied a career-high with five assists against Notre Dame – and freshman Jose Alvarado be aggressive in seeking runouts after Pitt turnovers?
Parker Stewart (7.6 ppg), one of Pittsburgh’s seven scholarship freshmen, has made 12 of his last 30 three-pointers. The 6-5, 190-pound combo guard rubs off screens well and brings a crafty, smooth-shooting presence to the Panthers’ perimeter in the vein of Miami’s D.J. Vasiljevic. A native of Union City, Tenn., Stewart also held an offer from Pastner at Tech. It would make sense: Stewart’s high school team was nicknamed the Golden Tornadoes.
Two things you didn’t know about freshman Moses Wright: he can play the upright bass and he sometimes listens to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to relax before games. He’ll gladly trade a fifth for a fourth Saturday – as in Georgia Tech’s fourth win in a row.
Now that we’re prepared, we hope you are as well. Our pregame coverage starts at 1:30 p.m. EST on the Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network. See you in Pittsburgh. –AD--