After the surprise of last year’s team, the media and many fans gave Georgia Tech a lot more respect this season. Many people picked Georgia Tech to finish between 8th and 11th in the conference, not huge praise, but a step up nonetheless. In the OOC schedule though, things looked bad. Tech took awful home losses to Grambling State and Wright State and put in some poor performances against Georgia and Bethune-Cookman. Heading into conference play, it looked like they could be headed for the bottom of the conference. Instead, they have started 2-1 in conference and enjoyed a convincing OOC win against Yale in that stretch as well. This team has gotten healthy and they now have a signature win in Miami. Has this team turned the corner?
There are some reasons to believe that this team has turned it around. They are finally totally healthy and nobody is suspended. Missing players have hurt this team all year. Josh Okogie is back and seems to have found his groove, Ben Lammers is nearly back to 100% from that ankle injury that seems to have kept him from practice, Curtis Haywood is back playing and providing some offensive spark.
Beyond that, this is a team that is relying on a lot of new players in the rotation. Given how many practices and games have been missed, it seemed like the defense wasn’t gelling very well, especially the zone. The wings were missing over-rotating and giving wide open threes or leaving Ben Lammers on an island. The three point shooting was especially an issue. In the 7 games leading up to ACC play, GT held a team to under 40% shooting from deep just once, and they still gave up 33% from three. In the four games since then they’ve been at or below 35% given up in every game. The Yellow Jackets are closing out a whole lot better and are helping themselves by not getting dragged out of position. If they keep this up, the defense will turn from good to elite.
In addition, this team is closing games out. Miami and Notre Dame kept making big baskets to give them some momentum late in the game, but Georgia Tech was able to keep their composure and close those out without too much drama. That kind of play was missing early in the year even in games that Tech was able to win. Take the game against Northwestern. Tech gave up a big lead late as their offense stalled, then their final play broke down before luckily Tadric Jackson was able to find a hole for a winning layup. But in back to back ACC games Tech has survived the other team making a run late in the game. This is big.
There is some reason to doubt this team still. Notre Dame was missing their two best players and Rex Pflueger was playing sick. They also couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn missing their first 12 three pointers. Still they had a chance to win the game in the final minute. The main reason to doubt is this offense. It’s not good. KenPom has them ranked as the 203rd best offense in the country. They only shoot 32.6% from deep (275th in the country) and 46.9% from two (266th in the country). The Yellow Jackets have only shot better than 50% from inside the arc 3 times this year (they also hit 50% exactly in one other game). To truly make a run in the ACC this has to improve.
To improve the offense starts with the three players that were expected to carry the team this year: Ben Lammers, Josh Okogie, and Tadric Jackson. Ben Lammers started the season strong with 24 points against UCLA and 19 against Bethune-Cookman. But ever since his ankle injury he seems out of rhythm. His reliable jump shot isn’t working and his finishing down low isn’t there. Even in this stretch of 4 games, he’s only shooting 35% from the field. Now that he is fully back to practice we will hopefully see him get his shot back up to speed and give this offense a lifeline.
Josh Okogie spent much of the season out with suspension and a finger injury on his shooting hand. You would expect that to affect his shot. It did not. He struggled some with finishing in his first games, but his 44.8% three point shooting has been a godsend for this shooting-challenged team. His first couple of games he was clearly forcing things, but he has settled down and found his rhythm. Over the last three games he has showed his offensive talent. First, despite shooting poorly from deep he was able to put up 30 points on 23 shots against the 5th best defense in the country (according to kenpom) in Miami. His efficiency from the field wasn’t fantastic, but he was able to get to the free throw line effectively and he was forced to take more shots because nobody else on the team was hitting their shots. Then, in limited minutes against Yale he put up 20 points on just 7 field goal attempts. Finally against Notre Dame he gutted out 17 points on 6-13 shooting, but added 5 assists as GT had to gut it out against a hustling defense. He has played solid when he’s played, but the last three games have looked like the Josh Okogie we expected.
Tadric Jackson seems to be going in the other direction. He was having a season offensively that was both efficient and effective. He once again was looking to make big strides in his PPG and FG%. The last three games have been tough for him. He has scored just 20 points on 7-24 shooting. His shot is struggling and he doesn’t get to the line enough to make up for it when it’s not going in. Even when he’s not playing great he can be a boon, in Wednesday’s game against the Irish, Tech finally broke the zone by using Jackson in the high post instead of Lammers. This tactic was effective several times in a row down the floor, even if shots weren’t falling they were good shots. But, this team needs more scoring. If this team is truly turning a corner it needs more scoring. Jose Alvarado has done a good job on offense, but the extra points most likely will come from the three I talked about. Okogie looks like he’s stepping up, we need either Lammers to recover his shot or Tadric to regain his early season form if this team is going to compete in the ACC.
Tech’s next game is at Pittsburgh on Saturday. This game will tell us a lot. Pitt is the worst team in the ACC, but it is a road game for Tech. They need this win before they face a brutal four game stretch. Now’s the time for Tech to step up.