Tomorrow night, the #2 ranked Virginia Cavaliers head to Atlanta to square off with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Virginia is coming off a convincing win against an upstart NC State team, improving its record to 16-1 (5-0 ACC). Georgia Tech has been putting wins together, including taking 3 of 4 in the ACC. We sat down with Robert Pensa of SB Nation’s From the Rumble Seat to find out what has changed for the Yellow Jackets and what we should watch for Thursday night.
You can read my answers to Robert’s questions here.
Streaking the Lawn: After dropping the opening conference game to a then-healthy Notre Dame team, the Yellow Jackets are on a four game winning streak including wins over Miami and a payback game against Notre Dame. What has changed in terms of on court performance and what led to the improvements?
From the Rumble Seat: The biggest thing is that the Jackets are finally healthy and the chemistry is growing. To start the season, Tadric Jackson and Josh Okogie were both suspended. On top of that, Okogie suffered a dislocated finger that kept him out past the end of his suspension. Ben Lammers suffered an ankle injury in the third game of the season that kept him hobbled nearly all of non-conference play. Combine all that together and Tech was undermanned and out of sync to start the year. Okogie didn’t see his first action until late in December and Lammers is starting to finally look healthy. The result is that the Jackets look like a completely different team. They are playing with more confidence, more energy, and are more synchronized.
STL: Following a solid 15 point win over the dismal Pittsburgh Panthers, Georgia Tech is sitting in third place in the ACC at 3-1. What was your expectation of this team in ACC play, and how have they lived or not lived up to that?
FTRS: Going into the season, many Tech fans were cautiously optimistic about the upcoming year, given the surprise season the Jackets had a year ago. While no one expected to contend for an ACC title, fans were hopeful to have a season that could return Georgia Tech to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. After a dreadful non-conference, that cautious optimism had quickly disappeared for most and it looked like this team would struggle to get even a few wins. So to answer your question, the 3-1 start has been slightly unexpected, but at the same time not that surprising given the talent that the fans know is on this team. It looks like the Jackets are finally putting things together and it will be interesting to see how they perform the further we get into ACC play.
STL: What can the Yellow Jackets do to break down Virginia’s Pack Line defense? Which matchups can be exploited in favor of Georgia Tech?
FTRS: There’s the million dollar question. First of all, the Jackets will have to get out in transition and get some easy buckets to make things easier on themselves. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Tech currently ranks 327th in the country in tempo and UVA is among the best teams in the country in taking care of the ball. The Jackets will also have to hit their jumpers. The return of freshman Curtis Haywood is a much needed boost for Tech’s outside shooting, but on the season the Jackets rank 300th in the country in three point percentage. That number will have to be much better Thursday night. Looking instead at how Tech can use one of their strengths to their advantage, they will need to use motion, back-cuts, and screens to confuse the defense and break up the “pack”. Relentless back-cutting has become one of the Jackets main identities in Josh Pastner’s first two seasons and they do it better than any team in the conference.
STL: Ben Lammers struggled last year adjusting to Virginia’s post trap and stiff interior defense. What can he do this year to better attack the Cavalier big men?
FTRS: Ben Lammers is at his best when he is knocking down his jump shot and given time to execute his post moves in the paint. A season ago he went just 3-12 against the Cavaliers, in large part due to how Jack Salt defended him. Salt was able to use his size to keep Lammers out of the paint and not give him space, never letting him get into a rhythm. This year, Lammers will need to find a way to get some open jump shots, which he is often able to get when the Jackets offense runs through him at the top of the key. In the beginning stages of the game, Tech will need to commit to running the offense through Lammers and get him into a rhythm early. If his shot isn’t falling, he has to be careful not to force it and instead let the game come to him.
STL: There is no question that Josh Okogie is having another solid season, especially shooting the ball from beyond the arc. Outside of him, who will be the X-Factor for Georgia Tech on Thursday?
FTRS: The easiest answer here is Tadric Jackson. The senior guard is averaging nearly 14 points per game, but has struggled a bit in his last four games, scoring just 33 points over that span. Jackson has elite athleticism, a quick first step, and has developed a great touch around the basket, leading to a 57% two-point field goal percentage this season. What has held Jackson back his entire career is his jump shot and he’s shooting just 24% on threes this season. However, that hasn’t prevented him from having some big games and he’s scored in double digits in all but two games this year.
While it seems odd calling Ben Lammers an X-factor, his inconsistency this season (in large part due to his ankle injury) has made him exactly that. The senior big man has seven double-doubles on the year, but also has games of 3-11, 2-10, and 1-7 shooting. His defensive impact will never be in doubt, but the Jackets could definitely use a big night offensively from him if they want to pull off the upset.
One of the great things about this Tech team is that so many guys could fit this category. Another one to watch is point guard Jose Alvarado who already has three 20+ point outings in his freshman campaign. He continues to improve every night out. Junior big man Abdoulaye Gueye has scored 38 points over the last three games after scoring just 27 points in his first two seasons and has the potential to have another impactful game on Thursday.
Thanks to Robert for answering our questions and giving some great insight into this year’s tilt between the ‘Hoos and the Yellow Jackets!
Virginia vs. Georgia Tech is set to tip off at 8pm Thursday night on the ACC Network.