Georgia Tech’s accomplishments in coach Brian Gregory’s second season have steadily lined up, one after another.
The Yellow Jackets beat Georgia for the second year in a row for the first time since a three-game run 1992-94. They ended an 11-game ACC road losing streak. They’ve won more than one ACC road game in a season for the first time since 2007-08. Perhaps the high-water mark for the season arrived on Super Bowl Sunday three weeks ago, a come-from-behind takedown of Virginia, one of the stronger teams in the conference.
A win against the same Cavaliers Sunday in Charlottesville, Va., would undoubtedly be the crowning achievement thus far. Virginia has lost two in a row, both on the road, to North Carolina and Miami, losing to the No. 2 Hurricanes in the final seconds. Virginia has nonetheless won three of its past five since losing to the Jackets and are 15-1 at home, including 6-0 in ACC play. The Cavaliers’ average margin of victory in the six ACC home wins is 16.8 points.
“You can’t mess around on the road in this league,” Gregory said. “When you play Virginia, it’s even more so.”
Virginia (18-8 overall, 8-5 ACC) is trying to play its way off the NCAA tournament bubble and will also carry the motivation of the earlier loss to the Jackets. In that game, the Cavaliers took a 37-28 halftime lead before the Jackets (14-11, 4-9) rallied, shooting 50 percent from the field in the second half to win 66-60. Considering the opponent – Virginia was No. 18 in the country in field-goal percentage defense through Thursday’s games – it was probably Tech’s best half of the season.
Said guard Mfon Udofia, “Those guys are going to be ready to play.”
Tech’s monitoring of guard Joe Harris will be critical. Harris, who was fourth in the ACC in scoring at 16.7 points per game going into the weekend, has been on a tear since the Tech game. In the past five games, he has averaged 22.4 points, hitting 64.4 percent from the field and 57.7 percent from 3-point range.
He figures to be a lock for first-team All-ACC. Not bad for a player who was lightly recruited coming out of high school and was ranked the No. 51 shooting guard in his class by ESPN.
After hitting for 14 points in the first half against Tech, Harris was limited to four points in the second half on 1-for-5 shooting, due in part to the physical defense applied by Jackets forward Marcus Georges-Hunt. The degree to which Georges-Hunt and others can slow down Harris will help determine Tech’s fate.
Asked if he was looking forward to facing Harris again, Udofia replied, “Not really. But we’re ready.”
Tech will get a boost with guard Jason Morris expected to contribute more minutes. Morris missed 10 games after aggravating his plantar fasciitis injury, played two minutes against Wake Forest last Saturday but did not play in Tech’s 70-58 loss to North Carolina on Tuesday.
After winning on the road against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest in back-to-back road games, Tech will encounter a higher-caliber challenge in John Paul Jones Arena. Tech managed to beat the Demon Deacons despite scoring five points in 17 possessions to open the second half.
Not only is Tech probably more likely to enter into such a lapse, given Virginia’s defensive prowess, but the Jackets are less likely to survive it. Through Thursday’s games, Virginia was fourth in the ACC in field-goal percentage (46.3 percent) and second in 3-point percentage (40.8 percent).
“They control the tempo of the game a lot of the times, and they’re good at it, so you have to have quality possessions every time you get the ball,” Gregory said.