Georgia Tech basketball feeling its backs are against the wall

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

In last place in the ACC, Georgia Tech needs to make a move soon if it’s to make something of its season. Forward Jordan Usher can sense the urgency.

“It’s kind of like renting a house you know you can’t afford,” Usher said. “Every single month, you have to hustle and get that money or else you’re going to get evicted. Like, you’ve got no other option.”

As the Yellow Jackets play at Virginia Tech on Wednesday night against another team in the ACC’s bottom third, it is, fittingly, the beginning of the month.

“The rent is due,” Usher said. “It’s time to pay. We’ve gotten two, three eviction letters. We have to pay now.”

Usher has been through it before with the Yellow Jackets. Two years ago, Tech sat at 8-11 overall and 3-6 in the ACC before finishing the regular season by winning nine of the next 12 to earn the team’s first winning record in ACC play since the 2003-04 season. (Tech’s season ended in the regular season, as the team accepted a postseason ban for NCAA violations, which proved a fortuitous decision when the ACC and NCAA tournaments were canceled at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Last season, the Jackets were 9-8 and 5-6 and nowhere close to the NCAA Tournament bubble before peeling off eight consecutive wins, the last to win the ACC championship and clinch Tech’s first NCAA berth since 2010.

“Just having that back against the wall is where I feel kind of comfortable,” Usher said. “You have no other option than to win. That’s kind of where we are right now.”

For Tech fans looking for reasons to believe their team can respond as it did in the past two seasons, the schedule might be one source of hope. Of the Jackets’ remaining 11 games, eight are against teams that are under .500 in ACC play. Another is Notre Dame, a team that the Jackets consistently play close games against.

Another reason is that the Jackets’ defense, particularly its ability to create turnovers, appears to be turning a corner. It is important for at least two reasons, both having to do with their scoring issues. One, every turnover forced denies the opponent of a scoring opportunity. Two, live-ball turnovers, namely steals, often generate transition scoring chances that can ease Tech’s scoring woes.

Over the past six games, the Jackets have averaged 11.2 steals per game. Their average before that was seven steals per game. Similarly, opponents have averaged 16 turnovers per game in the past six games, up from 12.9 in the first 14 games of the season. In league play entering Tuesday’s games, the Jackets ranked second in the ACC in steals per game (9.3) and second in turnovers forced (14.3). That’s compensation for the Jackets also ranking 11th in blocked shots (2.9 per game) and 13th in defensive field-goal percentage (47.1%).

The increase in defensive trouble that the Jackets are causing coincides with Tech’s increase in usage of its small lineup, with Usher and forward Khalid Moore playing in the post. Usher said that the defense has had more of an attacking approach and focused less on principles.

“If you start thinking about scheme and strategy too much, I feel like you can get away from competing every play,” Usher said.

It has appeared that Tech players, particularly in the past two games (an upset win over Florida State and a loss to Miami), the Jackets have been more active and aggressive with their hands as they played out of the 1-3-1 zone defense.

Miami coach Jim Larranaga credited the varying shapes and maneuvers within the zone.

“They like to trap in the corners,” Larranaga said last week. “They’ll pick you up at midcourt, or they’ll pick you up more around the NBA 3-point line. And they vary the pickups, they vary the pressure. They’re very good at forcing turnovers because it’s so unique.”

The Jackets will need to particularly be on their game on defense Wednesday. Before Tuesday’s games, the Hokies were tied for 35th in Division I (and sixth in the ACC) with 11 turnovers per game and also fourth in 3-point field-goal percentage (41.1%).

Virginia Tech coach Mike Young still shared Larranaga’s wariness about the Jackets zone.

“I just think their aggression and their recoveries are a little bit different than some, and it takes you a little bit of time to get your eyes on it and understand those angles and where they’re coming from,” Young said Monday on the ACC coaches videoconference.

On Wednesday, they’ll likely be coming as though their rent is due.

“I think we’re in the right spot,” Usher said. “We’re turning the corner.”