After limping into conference play with a résumé that the NIT selection committee would have fed into a shredder (but only after laughing and passing it around the room), Georgia Tech is starting to puff out its chest three weeks later.
The Yellow Jackets are 3-1 in ACC play, good enough for third place in the conference as they prepare for No. 2 Virginia on Thursday at McCamish Pavilion. Gaining in health and confidence after a rocky November and December, their aspirations are high.
“I think we’re one of the teams that’s in the mix,” coach Josh Pastner said. “I think anybody can beat anyone in the league so far. I think it’s just parity. It’s wide open. Everyone’s even.”
Pastner’s crew – and perhaps his estimation of the ACC – will face its most severe test of the season by far on Thursday. The Cavaliers, 16-1 overall and 5-0 in the ACC, have wrung out their opposition since squeaking past Boston College in their ACC opener. Virginia has defeated Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Syracuse and N.C. State by an average of 15.5 points.
Virginia is rated first nationally in defensive efficiency (KenPom), creating turnovers and challenging shots with its “Pack Line” defense like almost no team in the country. The Cavaliers are sufficiently efficient at the other end, ranking in the top 30 nationally in 3-point percentage, free-throw percentage and assist/turnover ratio.
Pastner evaluated the Cavaliers as the most athletic and long team that coach Tony Bennett has had in his 12 seasons as a head coach.
“To beat Virginia, you’re going to have to beat Virginia,” Pastner said. “They’re not going to beat themselves, and they’re very sound and disciplined.”
While Tech is 3-1 in the league, the wins have been gained against Miami, which is ranked No. 25 in the AP poll, but has stumbled in league play; Notre Dame, which was down its two best players and has now lost three in a row; and Pittsburgh, which is the weakest team in the league.
“I think this is a great opportunity for both coaches and players to kind of see what we’re made of,” guard Josh Okogie said. “Obviously, I think it’s the first time we’ve played a team of this caliber as far as being this good both defensively and offensively, so I think it’s a big test for us.”
The game begins a rugged four-game stretch over an 11-game stretch in which the validity of the Jackets’ strong start in ACC play will be challenged. It’s followed by a trip to No. 15 North Carolina on Saturday, to Florida State (No. 31 in KenPom) on Wednesday and then a home game against No. 20 Clemson on Jan. 28.
Success against any of the four will require better play than the Jackets have shown at any point this season. While Tech is playing fierce defense, the Jackets continue to have trouble on offense, succumbing to occasional lapses. Tech is shooting 43.3 percent from the field, third lowest in the ACC, and its 1.0 assist/turnover ratio is likewise third from the bottom.
In Tech’s favor, four of Virginia’s five ACC wins have been achieved at home. And the Jackets are playing defense at a level comparable to their standards at the end of last season, according to Pastner, which the Jackets finished ranked sixth nationally in defensive efficiency.
Okogie agreed with the premise that the Jackets will have to avoid going dry for prolonged stretches, “but I have a lot of confidence in our defense, too,” he said. “I think there’s not going to be any room for error for both teams. We’ve got to play with extreme energy and pace, and I think we’ll be just fine.”
Further, Tech has shown a remarkable knack for hitting its peak at moments like this. The Jackets are now 9-2 in ACC games at home since Pastner’s hire, and they’ve beaten four AP top-15 opponents, three by 10 points or more. Tech will play before its first home sellout crowd of the season, an assembly that likely will include a fair percentage of Virginia fans.
“In the end, you’re going to have to make plays, and you’ve got to score,” Pastner said. “We can sit here and come up with every situation you can think of – in the end, you’re going to have to put the ball in the basket.”