After upset of UNC, assessing Georgia Tech’s chances against No. 2 Duke

When Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner asserted that his team was improving following the Yellow Jackets’ 70-58 loss to Florida State on New Year’s Eve, it was easy to doubt his assessment. Tech, after all, had just shot 40 percent from the field and turned the ball over 20 times.

But when the Jackets upset North Carolina 96-83 on Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C., Pastner's evaluation gained a little more credibility.

That improvement, though, will be up against the sternest of measuring sticks Wednesday with a 9 p.m. visit to McCamish Pavilion from No. 2 Duke. The Blue Devils hold a 13-1 record and have won their past seven games by an average margin of 23.6 points per game. They also have won their past 12 meetings against Tech and 36 of the past 39.

“They’ve got a lot of lottery picks, NBA players,” Pastner said. “They’re just a really good basketball team.

Still, Tech will still be eager for the test. Last year, the Jackets went to Cameron Indoor Stadium and led 38-31 at the 15:43 mark of the second half before their offense went off the rails in what proved to be a 66-53 win for the Blue Devils.

“I can’t say if the ball’s going to go in or not for us,” guard Jose Alvarado said, “but I promise you we’re going to focus on what we need to focus on, such as defense and controlling what we can control. Hopefully, we can get a good win Wednesday.”

Tech, which evened its record at 7-7 overall and 2-2 in the ACC with its win over North Carolina, figures to continue to play its high-level defense. By the rating of KenPom, Tech will be the third most effective defense that Duke has played this season. (And also the fourth worst offense.) Center James Banks sounded eager for the challenge of facing Duke freshman center Vernon Carey, whom Pastner called a candidate for national player of the year.

“When you’ve got somebody that you know you can play with, that you know you can be athletic with, that you can be physically with, (it helps),” Banks said. “I remember in Hawaii, we played Boise State, every time I tried to make a move, it was like a charge. Guys were flopping and stuff like that. It was just tougher to get going.”

Pastner also was wary of Duke’s ability to score off defensive rebounds and turnovers.

“They’re an elite offensive transition team,” he said. “Their first three steps that they run (in transition), they’re high level.”

As such, Tech will need to summon the offensive discipline it relied upon against the Tar Heels. Averaging 17.4 turnovers going into the game, the Jackets limited themselves to 13 against North Carolina, limiting freebie points for the Tar Heels. (They also benefited from UNC’s woebegone play, which caused coach Roy Williams to feel “the most negative I’ve ever felt about any team.”)

“We learned from our mistakes,” Alvarado said. “Florida State, obviously, we turned the ball over a lot, and that’s the main focus right now — not to turn the ball over.”

With Alvarado returned from an ankle injury, Tech appears to be trending toward a more conscientious approach with the ball. Their turnover numbers in the five games that Alvarado has played since returning — 20, 9, 14, 20, 13.

“I think we’re getting better,” Pastner said. “I really want to cut it down to single digits. That’s what the objective is. But we’re spending a lot of time on it.”

Pastner said that he had been devoting more time to offensive drills in practice at the expense of working the defense. He runs a drill called “Four Square” that he said the team does every practice for 20 minutes, working on fundamentals such as pivoting and catching the ball.

“Because a lot of turnovers have been just self-inflicted wounds,” he said.

Asking for another game of 59 percent shooting from the field — the Jackets’ rate against North Carolina, their season high — might be a bit much. But if Tech can keep Duke in the 70s or perhaps even lower — a range that Duke has been in four times this season — then the Jackets’ would give themselves a better chance to attempt a most unlikely upset.

“Assuming we’re going to play good defense, we’ve got to be better offensively and take care of the ball,” Pastner said. “That’s our best recipe to give us a chance for success.”