Perhaps the greatest evidence of Georgia Tech’s defensive prowess this season came to pass shortly after 6:15 p.m. Saturday at McCamish Pavilion.
Both the Yellow Jackets and Boston College were headed to the locker room for halftime. Tech had played a half the likes of which coach Josh Pastner had never seen. In 41 possessions, the Jackets lost the ball 10 times on turnovers. The other 31 possessions were similarly butchered. On 30 field-goal tries, Tech’s trained basketball players were able to fit the ball through the hoop just five times, a 16.7 percent shooting rate.
The Jackets scored but 15 points. But, because of their play on defense, they only trailed by seven points, a margin narrow enough that they were able to overtake the Eagles in the second half and win going away, 65-54.
“We held them to some really low percentage on offense as well,” center Ben Lammers said. “So it was pretty much like if we didn’t play good defense the first half, we would have been blown out.”
That the Jackets are in contention for an NCAA tournament bid in the middle of February — they play a crucial road game Wednesday night at Miami — is a testament to a number of things, not the least of which is their defensive play. Through Monday’s results, Tech was rated the ninth most efficient defense in the country by the metrics website KenPom at 90.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. Tech has not finished a season in the top 10 on defense by KenPom since the 2004-05 season, when the Paul Hewitt-coached Jackets ranked fifth.
Tech’s defensive prowess is particularly crucial because the Jackets score like an also-ran. The Jackets rank 253rd in offensive efficiency (99.8 points per 100 possessions), fourth lowest among power-conference schools. The 244-slot disparity between offense and defense is the widest of any power-conference school.
“We’ve got no shot if our defense isn’t really good because we’re severely limited in so many areas,” Pastner said.
Their defensive play has earned the respect of coaches around the league.
“They do some things out of their man-to-man and out of their zones that make it challenging for the opponent to make adjustments,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said.
Boston College coach Jim Christian was particularly taken with Lammers and his ability to play help defense.
“He either blocks (the shot) or changes it,” he said. “When he rotates, the other guys do a great job rebounding the ball, which is a hard thing to do.”
Following Tech’s win over Boston College on Saturday, Christian said he didn’t know if there was another player in the ACC who dictated the terms of the game at both ends of the floor more than Lammers.
“He takes away everything at the front of the rim,” he said.
Much of what Tech does emanates from Lammers’ ability to block or challenge shots without drawing fouls.
One, he limits opposing post men. Two, his ability to provide help when teammates are beaten going to the basket further limits opponents’ efficiency around the rim. Three, with that sort of assistance in their back pocket, other Tech defenders can be more aggressive elsewhere on the court.
“I feel like it helps us with our pressure on the ball,” forward Quinton Stephens said. “No one wants to get blown by, but we realize that if the guy gets by us, we make sure that we don’t foul because we’re going to let him go to Ben, and Ben can either alter the shot (or block it).”
Tech ranked 13th nationally in two-point field-goal percentage defense after Monday’s games (43.1 percent) and third in blocked shots per game (6.3), according to teamrankings.com.
Beyond schemes or individual play, Stephens and Lammers contended that the team’s level of energy is responsible for the improvement upon past teams, which under former coach Brian Gregory were typically effective on defense.
“Even if we have some breakdowns, guys are still running after the ball and trying to do what they can,” Lammers said.
Stephens has been an example, crashing the glass for 6.6 defensive rebounds per game in ACC play, third most in the league going into Tuesday’s games. Pastner said he derived “tremendous satisfaction” from watching guard Tadric Jackson, whom he has often chastened in practice for his effort, dive on the floor for a loose ball.
“It was like winning the lottery and getting $50 million seeing him dive on the floor, head first, to save a loose ball for us,” he said.
It’s not new territory for Pastner. Memphis ranked in the top 75 in defensive efficiency in each of his final six seasons and in the top 20 twice. Rather interestingly, Pastner devotes much less time to defense than he did at Memphis. At Memphis, he said, he spent 70 to 75 percent of practice time to defense. At Tech, because of the team’s offensive weaknesses, defense gets about 40 percent of practice time.
It would suggest that the Jackets, despite their dominant play on defense, can still get better. To make the NCAA tournament, it may be necessary.