Improvement paramount as Georgia Tech faces Georgia

What might be Georgia Tech’s most significant weakness is about to receive a most strenuous test Tuesday night at McCamish Pavilion.

The Yellow Jackets rank 349th in Division I defensive rebounding percentage out of 352 teams (37.6% per KenPom, meaning opponents win possession of almost four out of every 10 rebounds on Tech’s defensive end. The 100th-ranked team as of Tuesday was at 26.5%.). Archrival Georgia, making its biennial visit to Tech with first-year coach Mike White, ranks eighth in Division I in offensive rebounding percentage (38.6%).

“The rebounding on the defensive end is so important for us,” coach Josh Pastner said Monday. “Those perimeter players have got to stick their nose in there, have got to get in there and come up with great hits for us to be able to rebound so we can start the break. That’s a big thing for us.”

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Yellow Jackets

Some of it could be attributed to Tech being typically effective in defending 3-point shots (23rd in defensive 3-point field-goal percentage), as long misses tend to bounce farther away from the rim and negate effective rebounding positioning. But, as Pastner indicated, there’s more to it than that.

Another issue is that the lineups that Pastner has been putting on the floor are typically at a size disadvantage. But Pastner also wants to see players dig in a little harder to get positioning and win 50/50 balls off the rim.

“Again, we’re not a big team, and so that’s why everybody’s got to pull their weight and do their part,” he said. “Just has to be really at a high level of compete and fight, especially on the defensive glass.”

With White at the helm in Athens, Georgia (7-2) will try to maintain the advantage it has held over Pastner since his arrival at Tech in 2016. The Bulldogs have won four of five games against Pastner, with the Jackets breaking the streak last year at Stegeman Coliseum.

“Obviously, we know it’s an intense rivalry game, so it’s going to be a good atmosphere, a lot of energy,” Tech guard Deebo Coleman said. “Both teams are going to play hard.”

Rather surprisingly, Tech has been much better on its offensive glass than Pastner’s teams have previously been. The Jackets rank 73rd in offensive rebounding percentage (32.8%). In Pastner’s first six seasons, Tech has never been higher than 105th and ranked between 224th and 281st four times. And Tech is taking better care of the basketball than it typically has. As a result, despite being so ineffective at keeping opponents from securing second and third shots in a possession, the Jackets actually have taken nine more field-goal attempts than their seven Division I opponents.

That in part explains why Pastner wasn’t uncomfortable with where his team is heading into the game against Georgia, which will be followed by its ACC opener Saturday against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Pastner said he felt the team played the right way in its win over Northeastern on Friday and felt similarly “for the most part” about its performance in an 81-65 loss at Iowa on Nov. 29. In that game, the Jackets were done in by shooting 39.1% from the field, including a dreadful 43.9% on two-point field-goal attempts, and saw the Hawkeyes take 31 free throws to Tech’s 10. In Pastner’s tenure, the Jackets have had a wider free-throw disparity in the opponent’s favor only twice, according to sports-reference.com.

“I feel like each and every game, I feel like there’s something small that we can improve on as a team, but I feel like we’re ironing them out,” guard Deivon Smith said. “We’re still figuring things out about each other, but our chemistry is good on and off the court, and I think we’re building progress each and every game. We’d like to be undefeated, but even with our losses, we take good and bad from it.”

Smith has been a bright spot thus far, hitting double figures in scoring in five of Tech’s eight games with a 26/11 assist/turnover ratio, fourth in the ACC through Monday. In his second season with the team after transferring from Mississippi State, Smith’s skill and handle on the game appear to have caught up with his often jaw-dropping athletic ability.

“Definitely just being more comfortable,” Smith said. “This is my second year in the program and running this offense. I’m just playing at my own pace and not allowing the defense or other people to speed me up. Just staying comfortable and poised at all times. I think it’s showing.”

Forward Jalon Moore also has moved forward. Moved into the starting lineup three games ago, Moore has averaged 13 points and 8.3 rebounds. He is shooting 50% from the field. A raw talent when he arrived last season, Moore appears also to be finding his form.

“I think we all agree you can see his potential and his upside,” Pastner said. “Yes, there’s going to be some ups and downs, but it’s sort of like the Moses Wright thing – and I’m not saying he’s going to end up being like Moses – but you can see there’s potential that you just eventually have got to go with him, and you’re going to make some mistakes along the way,” Pastner said. “But hopefully it’s going to reap the rewards later on as he continues to grow and mature in playing.”

Regardless, barring a significant uptick in offensive efficiency – Tech ranks 13th in the ACC in field-goal percentage (41.9%) – the Jackets need to find a way to better limit opponent chances, as ACC play will bring a stream of teams that will have advantages in size and scoring efficiency over the Jackets.

“Literally our margin for error is zero to none,” Pastner said. “I guess zero to none’s the same thing, right? I guess it’d be one to none. Anyway, you guys get my point. We’ve got to really compete, especially on the defensive glass.”

Daily Jackets: The AJC presents a daily look at one news item about Georgia Tech athletics to start your morning.