#TGW: Tech’s Defense Never Rests

Josh Heath has nine steals in Tech's last four games.
Jan. 31, 2017

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

- Josh Pastner says that his team still has a way to go to get to where they ought to be, which is kind of amazing considering that Georgia Tech’s men’s basketball team has one of the nation’s best defensive squads.

Especially when you consider from whence the Yellow Jackets came.

At 13-8 and 5-4 in the ACC and tied for sixth place in the conference, this team is more than a surprise. Tech is a revelation.

Picked by the ACC media before the season to finish 14th in a 15-team league, the Jackets have surpassed nearly all expectations to where Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said last Saturday, after Tech picked off his now No. 20-ranked squad, 62-60, “I believe they’re going to be an NCAA Tournament team.”

And it’s mostly about defense.

Georgia Tech leads the ACC in field goal defense in conference play, allowing opponents to convert just 39.7 percent of their shots, and they’re good at the wrong end of the court in other ways, too, that help them win.

The Jackets have held eight of nine ACC opponents so far under their average shooting percentage, and they rank No. 19 nationally in field goal defense.

Opponent PPG vs. ACC vs. GT FG% vs. ACC vs. GT
North Carolina 89.0 (1) 63 45.6 (6) 33.3
Duke 81.5 (2) 110 48.0 (2) 55.7
Louisville 73.0 (8) 65 44.3 (12) 38.3
Clemson 70.8 (12) 63 44.9 (10) 36.7
NC State 76.0 (7) 76 45.5 (7) 40.6
Virginia Tech 76.8 (5) 62 47.0 (4) 40.0
Virginia 69.1 (13) 62 49.7 (1) 45.8
Florida State 85.7 (2) 56 49.8 (1) 28.2
Notre Dame 73.9 (9) 60 45.1 (10) 40.4

That’s good for a team that, forever, Pastner keeps saying has “extreme limitations” offensively.

“I think defense is all about energy and effort. I also think defense, as in everything in life, is about paying attention to details,” Pastner said. “There’s a lot of small details that you’ve got to be good at, which we’ve improved at.

“We’re a better team today than when we started the season, and we’ve become a good team. We have to hang our hat on the defensive end.”

The Jackets weren’t good at the start.

In their lone exhibition game, they survived Division II Shorter, 95-87 in overtime, not because of their defense.

Pastner knew that despite all the points that his team scored against a smaller, weaker squad, Tech needed to really buckle down.

They have.

The Jackets have punched their way into bubble conversation for the NCAA Tournament by clamping down.

They played quite a bit of man-to-man defense while beating Notre Dame, yet have made serious hay with a variety of zone defenses, including a mutant that TV broadcasters keep calling a 1-3-1.

“I think defense is all about energy and effort. I also think defense, as in everything in life, is about paying attention to details,” Pastner said. “There’s a lot of small details that you’ve got to be good at, which we’ve improved at.

“We’re a better team today than when we started the season, and we’ve become a good team. We have to hang our hat on the defensive end.

Michigan head coach John Beilein was noted in the late 1990s and beyond for deploying the 1-3-1 when he was at West Virginia.

The idea behind the defense is to mark the ball-handler and beyond that limited intermediate-range shot opportunities while keeping a rim protector in the back to dissuade attacks of the goal.

“There as a time when the 1-3-1 was really working,” Beilein said a few years ago to Michigan media. “[At West Virginia], we had the second-best shot blocker in the country ... put him in the middle of the 1-3-1 and it works.”

Tech junior center Ben Lammers leads the ACC with 3.33 blocked shots per game.

But he says the Jackets don’t really play a 1-3-1 other than a fairly rare half-court trap.

“Usually in a 2-3 this guy has this area or that area. We still have a zone but there’s lots of times where you break out to cover other guys,” he said. “It takes a while because it is kind of a complex thing. You have to know what three other guys are doing and what the ball’s doing.”

What he’s saying is that the Jackets often deploy a 2-3 zone that might look like a 1-3-1 because of the way opponents move. Some players break the zone depending on where the ball goes, or where the opponent overloads areas.

Pastner has mixed defenses more than many coaches, and he has two reasons for that: he looks at what’s happening on the court, and he wants to keep opponents off-guard.

“Feel. Feel,” he said of his coaching decisions. “I’m a feel coach and I’ve been a feel coach based on who I sub, when I take guys out, and also some of the defensive stuff we do. I also have some data behind this, on what we’re doing and how’s it working, and I listen to my assistants as well.”

The Jackets change defenses frequently in games. They used a little of what looked like a box-and-one at Virginia to try to slow Cavs point guard London Perrantes.

“It was pretty much the same principles as the 2-3, but we just had four guys in a diamond,” Lammers said.

Lammers said he’s never surprised when Pastner changes defenses. He thinks it’s helping Tech over-achieve. “He’s really good at moving in games. I’d say [he does it] a lot,” Ben said. “It’s still not like he’s switching every play. It’s more than in the past ... to kind of keep people on their toes. I think it’s been really good. It keeps people on their toes.”

Tech has one stellar on-ball defender in fifth-year Corey Heyward, and he’s played more recently in part of sake of his aptitude on that side of the court.

The Jackets are going to keep mixing it up, both because they want to keep opponents off balance, and because, well, coach Pastner has hunches.

“I think it’s a little of both ... and I’ve always coached like that,” Pastner said. “It doesn’t matter the personnel. It’s based on what’s working, what’s not working, how we’re playing. If you’re not good defensively, based on our severe limitations ... then we don’t have a chance.

“Guys have improved. We’re not a finished product defensively, but ... I think Justin Moore has made significant improvement defensively. Tadric Jackson has made significant improvement, and Ben Lammers.”