On the first possession of the ACC Tournament championship game Saturday in Greensboro, N.C., Jordan Usher’s pilot light was already aflame. As Georgia Tech deployed its 1-3-1 defense against Florida State, Usher deterred guard Anthony Polite as he dribbled at the top of the 3-point arc, his hands spread high and wide, shuffling his feet to stay in front of Polite before he passed off.
Usher then scrambled to the low post to double team center Balsa Koprivica with forward Moses Wright, inducing a pass to Polite in the corner. As Polite swung the ball to guard RayQuan Evans at the top of the 3-point arc, Usher saw it coming. He quickly closed down space on Evans as he made the catch, hands high.
“But he picked (the ball) up,” Usher said, “and his eyes were real eager to get it out of his hands, so I thought, ‘Well, if he’s going to put it over his head, I might as well put my arm up there,’ and I put my hand on it and was able to pop it away.”
Usher batted the ball in the air, collected it and scored on a fast-break layup, filling the Greensboro Coliseum with a primal scream as he returned upcourt. In only the game’s first 27 seconds, the Jackets had sent a message. Nothing was going to come easy for Florida State on offense.
“A lot of connectivity and defensive passion,” Usher said, explaining the Yellow Jackets approach. “Because when our backs are against the wall, we’ve just got to go hard.”
The wonders of Tech’s season have been many. They include the Jackets’ upset of then-No. 15 FSU for the ACC championship, an 80-75 win initiated by Usher’s steal (and followed by three more turnovers on the next three Seminoles possessions). The seizing of the Jackets’ first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010 – in the form of a No. 8 seed to match up with No. 9-seed Loyola Chicago on Friday in Indianapolis – is perhaps the most prized.
But, both achievements rest upon a foundation of defensive play that has been simultaneously calculating and fanatical. Besides that, it has been a departure from the methods of coach Josh Pastner’s first four teams. FSU coach Leonard Hamilton was witness to it three times this season, twice in defeat. The Jackets forced 25 turnovers out of FSU in the title game, more than it had committed in a game since December 2011, according to sports-reference.com.
“Your hat goes off to a team like that – Georgia Tech was extremely scrappy,” Hamilton said after the title game. “They kind of showed you what intensity and sound defensive principles was like.”
For the first four seasons of Pastner’s tenure, the Jackets were anchored by centers Ben Lammers and James Banks, superior shot blockers who both were two-time members of the ACC all-defensive team, with Lammers also being named defensive player of the year in 2017. With their ability to challenge shots at the rim and in the paint, their teammates played to challenge shots and to funnel the ball to Lammers or Banks. The numbers reflected the priorities.
After not ranking lower than 33rd in Division I in blocked shots per game in Pastner’s first four seasons, Tech was 137th (3.4 per game) this season through Saturday’s games. Similarly, the Jackets were 27th in forced turnovers (15.9 per game), far better than their previous high under Pastner, 123rd. Tech was sixth nationally in steals after not finishing higher than 84th in the previous four seasons.
Tech has given up more points than it has previously under Pastner (70 per game, exceeding the previous high of 67.8). Also, opponents have shot a far higher field-goal percentage, especially on 3-pointers, in no small part because the Jackets are the shortest team in the ACC, per KenPom. But they’re also on track to set a scoring high in Pastner’s tenure (75.5 per game) by almost seven points.
The Jackets are fiendish at creating turnovers, and the methods are diverse. They poke balls away on the dribble, knock it out of players’ hands as they look to pass, intercept passes, strip players as they go up for shots and take charges. An added benefit of live-ball turnovers is that they often lead to transition scoring chances.
“It’s fun,” Usher said. “It’s become a big part of our team, like a staple to our team, that we turn teams over. And when we get out it transition, that’s the best for us. Like when we can get our easy run-outs, I think that’s where we’re a real problem for a team, when we can do that.”
After ranking no higher than 84th in Division I in steals per game in Pastner’s first four seasons, the Jackets rank sixth this season at 9.2 per game. Guard Jose Alvarado leads the ACC (for the second year in a row) in steals with 2.96 per game, which was also second in Division I at its most recent ranking.
“The way they defend is the biggest concern,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said Wednesday. “They rip steals and they’re constantly digging and raking and jumping and deflecting.”
According to those who know, it was not a conscious blocks-to-steals shift in defensive strategy, but still an attempt to play to strengths.
“We’re aware of who we are,” assistant coach Anthony Wilkins said. “We’re not the tallest team in the league, so it’s not like our game plan is to rotate and meet every team at the rim.”
But more than that, Wilkins said, the results are the outcome of the overall vision that Pastner has had since his hire, relying upon upperclassman players who have developed their games, have seen a lot of opponents and play at full tilt.
Just as Usher reacted to visual cues on the first possession of the game against Florida State, so did Alvarado to clinch the game a little more than two hours later. Tech was up 78-73 with 9.0 seconds left when Evans took the inbounds pass in the backcourt and dribbled up the right sideline before raising up for a 3-pointer from the wing. Alvarado was ready, ripping the ball out of Evans’ hands for his fifth and Tech’s 15th steal of the game (a title-game record). He threw ahead to Michael Devoe for a layup. Alvarado said that he was ready for Evans because the Seminoles had run the same play.
“It’s not like I’m just naturally good on defense,” said Alvarado, the ACC defensive player of the year. “I study, I do my little film work.”
Devoe is another perceptive defender. In his case, Wilkins said that his savvy as an offensive player helps him put himself in an opponent’s shoes and read the Jackets defense along with him. When Devoe is on the wing of Tech’s 1-3-1 zone defense, he has a knack for sliding into position to intercept passes when the ball is swung from to his side, a bit like a free safety anticipating a pass.
“He can sniff out reads that guys are making and kind of be on top of the decision that they’re making,” Wilkins said. “Sometimes he benefits in getting a steal that kind of jumps off the screen because he’s read the play the whole way.”
The physical tools are undoubtedly part of the product. Devoe, for instance, has long arms that can reach into passing lanes and into opponent’s dribbles. Usher is a superb athlete who can cover ground quickly. Alvarado has lightning-quick hands developed by boxing lessons from his father. The effectiveness comes from those gifts being put to use.
When guard Bubba Parham slid in front of FSU center Tanor Ngom to tap away a pass for a steal that was converted into a layup by Alvarado, it had more to do with awareness and commitment to defending than any natural giftedness, given that Parham is 5-foot-10 and Ngom is 7-2 and was reaching up for the pass.
The Jackets take no small amount of pride in the work they invest in their defense. When Alvarado pokes a ball out from an opponent’s dribble, it might result in a steal only if a teammate is alert and quick enough to recover it before the offense does.
“Our ability to win 50/50 balls and our attentiveness to being the first to the floor for them and not letting people outcompete us for 50/50 balls is literally one of the pillars of coach Pastner’s approach defensively,” Wilkins said.
Loyola knows something about defending, too. The Ramblers rank first in KenPom in defensive efficiency, well ahead of the Jackets at 52nd. Given the potential struggle the Jackets may face to create their own points, Tech’s hopes in its first NCAA Tournament game in more than a decade may rest on its ability to extract the ball from Loyola’s possession, repeatedly.
“It’s paying off so far, and that’s just who we are,” Alvarado said of his team’s defensive grit. “That’s what we’re going to give every game.”