Wednesday night the Jackets wrapped up their out-of-conference schedule with an ugly win over NC A&T, which according to KenPom is one of the worst ten teams in the country. The Jackets came into the season with very low expectations, so how did they do against those expectations? Where do they go from here? Do they have any chance in conference play?
Tech was a little up and down in conference play this year. They started off pretty strong, in their first five games they had four comfortable wins against teams in or near the bottom half of division 1 and one close loss against Ohio. They followed that up with a close loss at Penn State, one of the worst teams in the Big 10, but still a major conference team. Nothing worth writing home about, but not the disaster that many predicted the season to be. Then came the end of the OOC schedule. The Jackets got crushed by Tennessee and Georgia, neither of which look very good this year. They eked out a win against a bad Wofford team, and then there was that abomination the other night against NC A&T where it took the Jackets more than five minutes to score a single point. Sandwiched in between those games was by far Georgia Tech’s best performance of the season when they beat VCU in Richmond. That team played with intensity and did not fold against the Rams’ heavy pressure.
All in all, this team is about where many expected them to be at this point in the season. They do have a win against a major team, but they look completely outclassed by most of the strong competition they play.
A large part of the reason that Tech has been able to play at this level is because of the solid defense this team plays. Much of that is attributable to Ben Lammers who has been a force inside. Much of the success on defense is the result of two factors: teams do not shoot well inside the arc, and they don’t get to the free throw line. Ben Lammers is a huge reason for that. He has lead the team to the second best Block % in the country (18%). This forces other teams to adjust their layups to avoid a block, or avoid getting to the rim entirely. Not only does Lammers force other teams to change their gameplans by protecting the rim, he does it without fouling. The Jackets are 42nd in the country at keeping the opposing team off the line and away from the free points.
Offensively the team has struggled greatly, to nobody’s surprise. Lammers and Quinton Stephens are good role players on the offense (though Stephens has been struggling with his shot), but the team does not really have a go-to player on offense. The two creators are the wings Tadric Jackson and Josh Okogie, though both are inconsistent. Okogie started off the season very strong, but has struggled greatly recently. He has only shot above 34% once since his explosion against Tulane. He just looks like he is trying to do too much when the offense has a couple of bad possessions. He seems to try to take over the game when he’s not yet capable of doing that. He needs to try to slow the game down and not force anything that the defense is not giving him. He has the talent and now he will be facing much tougher defenses, but the Jackets need his creation so hopefully he will be able to turn it around. Jackson is a bit of an enigma. He has greatly improved his shooting percentages this year at nearly 50% from the field and over 50% from deep. But he seems to totally lack the aggression that this team needs from him. He had it against VCU when he was attacking with the ball. He is the best offensive player on this team and he needs to play like it. When our offense struggled mightily against Georgia, he shot 2-5. Not awful, but our best offensive player needs to take more than five shots, especially when we are struggling as much as we were against the Bulldogs. Same story on Wednesday night as Jackson only took three shots inside the arc when the rest of the team could not buy a bucket. When the offense is struggling he needs to be the one to make plays. Part of his low volume is his puzzling lack of play time. He has not topped 30 minutes once in regulation this season. It seems odd that our best offensive player hovers around 20 minutes a game. For the Yellow Jackets to succeed in conference play, Okogie needs to focus on not forcing the ball, and Tadric needs to focus on taking over when need be.
The Yellow Jackets will almost certainly start ACC play 0-3. That is okay. Every team in the country would be in danger of starting 0-3 with this schedule. We start off with #9 UNC (#3 KenPom) then face off with #5 Duke (#2 KenPom) and #6 Louisville (#8 KenPom). That is a true murderer’s row. The Jackets would do well just hang in one or two of these games. The schedule gets a little easier from there, but the ACC is loaded this year so there are not too many easy games. The most winnable is easily the home game against Boston College, but NC State, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh all at home seem winnable and the Jackets could really step it up and nab a real upset or two. I am slightly more optimistic than I was at the beginning of the season. My big hope for conference play is to nab a couple of wins, see improvement from our freshmen, and watch Tadric take over games against frustrated opponents. It wouldn’t hurt to see a few big Lammers blocks, either.