Credit Georgia Tech with winning the first move of Saturday’s matchup with No. 19 Notre Dame at McCamish Pavilion.
On Friday, forward Nick Jacobs assured that the Yellow Jackets have a different plan for covering ball screens than the last time they faced the Fighting Irish, a 72-64 defeat Jan. 13 in South Bend, Ind. It would behoove the Jackets, as Notre Dame forward Zach Auguste ransacked Tech with 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting, many of the shots uncontested attempts at the rim after he set screens and then slipped to the basket with no one guarding him.
“This game, we’ve changed the coverages a little more,” Jacobs said, a close-up witness to Auguste’s quickness out of the screens. “Hopefully (Saturday), we’ll pull out the W.”
Tech’s challenges in defending big men this season was put on particular display on that frigid evening in Indiana. Besides his slips to the basket, Auguste also beat Tech’s big men down the floor for transition baskets.
Tech hardly was the only team that Auguste has dumped points on — he is averaging a double-double this season (14 points, 10.1 rebounds) and is a strong candidate for All-ACC. However, along with nine rebounds and two blocks, it arguably was his best game of the season. His 24 points also were the most points that the Jackets have allowed to a non-guard this season.
“The challenge for us is going to be getting up on defense and matching Auguste’s intensity, because the last game, he got the best of us, moving around, setting ball screens, running the floor,” Jacobs said.
One of coach Brian Gregory’s core defensive principles is that the five men on the floor play as one unit, each one ready to provide help should a teammate get beaten. It requires vision, awareness and readiness to help, but the Jackets have too often let opponents attack the basket unfettered on drives, cutters and slips — the result of breakdowns in on-ball and help defense.
It is one of the pivotal developments for the Jackets in a season where offensive efficiency has taken two steps forward — the defense has simultaneously shuffled backward. Ranked No. 29 in adjusted defensive efficiency last season by kenpom.com, Tech entered Friday ranked No. 100.
“We’re just not as good defensively,” Gregory said last week.
That flaw will be under the keen inspection of Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose team ranked first nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency (but 232nd defensively) after Thursday’s games.
“They figure out where you’re struggling, and they take advantage of it,” Gregory said.
Against Tech, what made the ball screen such a challenge is that the Irish spread their wealth of shooters on the perimeter. When Irish point guard Demetrius Jackson and Auguste worked the ball screen together, Tech’s other defenders couldn’t offer much help when Auguste slipped to the basket because that would require them to leave their own men open for 3-pointers.
Notre Dame shot 2-for-15 from 3-point range, but 19-for-39 inside the arc.
“Where Notre Dame gets you, and a lot of teams, (is) they can stretch you at times at four out of the five positions because they can shoot the ball so well,” Gregory said. “Do you give up the slip or do you give up the three?
And yet, Gregory pointed out Friday, Tech was down three with the ball with 2:50 to play at Notre Dame in January before faltering. The Notre Dame series — one of the Jackets’ two permanent home-and-home partners along with Clemson — has been Tech’s bane. Tech is 1-4 against the Irish since they joined the ACC for the 2013-14 season, and the four losses have been by three points, seven points (double overtime), three points and eight points.
On Saturday, the onus may be on Jacobs and fellow big men Charles Mitchell, James White and Ben Lammers, as they take turns on Auguste, to defend on an island.
“That’s one thing Coach talks about,” Jacobs said. “At the end of the day, you’ve just got to check people.”