There’s plenty of opportunity for Georgia Tech to stumble. The Yellow Jackets have 13 more ACC games remaining, seven against RPI top-50 teams.
“We’re the type of situation, with the schedule in front of you, in this league, you can lose 10, 12, 13 in a row,” coach Josh Pastner said following his team’s takedown of N.C. State on Sunday.
Still, this much can’t be argued. The Jackets are far better than almost anyone expected. Going into their Wednesday night matchup at Virginia Tech, they’re 11-6 overall and 3-2 in the ACC. The Jackets’ conquests include VCU, North Carolina, Clemson and N.C. State, all potential NCAA tournament teams. Picked 14th in the ACC in the league’s preseason poll, 2-16 or 3-15 was a common forecast. The Jackets are above .500 after five ACC games for the first time since the 2009-10 season, the last time they went to the NCAA tournament.
“I think that guys, even ourselves, we’re saying, ‘Hey, man, we belong here,’” forward Quinton Stephens said. “’We’re here in the ACC. We can play with these guys, and they’re going to have to guard us.’”
What’s happened? Consider these five reasons that have helped Tech exceed expectations thus far.
Center Ben Lammers and freshman guard Josh Okogie have been a surprise as a 1-2 punch. Lammers developed over the course of the 2015-16 season, but his improvement has sped up even as the scoring burden on him has intensified. Entering Tuesday’s games, he ranked 16th in the ACC in scoring at 15.1 points per game and was in the top six in blocked shots, rebounding, field-goal percentage, double-doubles, free-throw percentage and minutes played.
“He’s an elite-level player in this league,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said.
Ranked the No. 31 shooting guard prospect in the 2016 class (247Sports composite), Okogie set the school freshman single-game scoring record (38 points, vs. Tulane) and is a near-lock to be Tech’s first representative on the ACC all-freshman team since Derrick Favors in 2010. Right from the jump, he has been what the Jackets have sorely needed — a player who can create his own shots and finish at the basket.
“He’s come a long way. He’s had a lot of strides,” Pastner said. “And the previous staff did a great job signing him, so they get credit for recognizing and evaluating it and signing him.”
Giving trouble on defense
Tech’s offense often struggles, but the Jackets’ mix of zone defenses and man-to-man has given opponents trouble. Tech went into Tuesday’s games ranked 49th in adjusted defensive efficiency by kenpom.com, seventh highest among ACC teams.
With the 6-foot-10 Lammers protecting the rim and teammates such as forward Abdoulaye Gueye and Okogie challenging shots with their length, Tech has been particularly effective inside the 3-point arc. Through Monday’s games, the Jackets were ranked 16th nationally at opponent 2-point field-goal percentage (42.5 percent), according to teamrankings.com. Tech was 209th last year at 49.5 percent.
“If everyone does their job (in the 2-3 zone), it’s really hard to actually find an opening against,” Lammers said.
The Jackets aren’t flawless on defense — their defense inside the arc has made them vulnerable outside of it, and they don’t have a strong rebounder outside of Lammers and Stephens. That said, for a group thin on experience and size, they’re doing well enough to stay in games.
Talent not so bad
Perhaps the predictions of doom for the Jackets — forecasts that Pastner hasn’t been shy about repeating — were oversold. Lammers showed potential last season, but his minutes were limited behind Nick Jacobs and Charles Mitchell. Okogie has been a revelation. Given more of a scoring role, Stephens has shown more consistency. With six games with 14-plus points, guard Tadric Jackson has delivered on more of the potential that he brought to Tech.
“You look at Georgia Tech and I know it’s a rebuild supposedly, but they’ve got some players here that are pretty good players,” Brownell said.
Said Stephens, “Like I say, our guys can play. We’ll let them kind of keep sleeping on us, but we’re just going to stay aggressive.”
Winning the effort battle
It hardly makes him unique, but Pastner preaches effort and toughness. Former coach Brian Gregory did the same. Players have responded in two particular ways, rebounding by guards (a Gregory staple) and winning loose balls. Pastner has kept a running tally in practice of loose balls won and lost.
“You can kind of see it in your head and you don’t have to think about it more during games,” Lammers said. “I think that’s helped correlate over to the games.”
Pastner has also been quick to confront or pull guards who fail to pursue a rebound. That isn’t a constant yet, but it’s made an impact. Jackson’s rebounds/minute rate has improved by 52 percent from last season. Guard Josh Heath grabbed a career-high seven against N.C. State, rebounds that either extended possessions or allowed him to start fast breaks and directly led to 11 points.
A little bit of luck
Particularly in the three ACC wins, Tech has had the fortune of playing teams not close to their best. North Carolina shot 5-for-26 from 3-point range (19.2 percent), quite an anomaly. Since the 2010-11 season, the Tar Heels have played 243 games. The loss to Tech was just the sixth in which they took 20 or more 3-pointers and made less than 20 percent of them, according to sports-reference.com.
Clemson likewise had a tough night from 3-point range, making seven of 24 attempts (29.2 percent).
While Tech played its best offensive game of the season against N.C. State, the Wolfpack were directly complicit, consistently failing to challenge 3-point shots or contest layups. The lack of effort led N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried to challenge his team that, “We’d better make a decision real quick whether we’re going to guard anybody.”