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Ken Sugiura

Tech may be turning a corner

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georgia tech yellow jackets, college basketball, acc, trae golden

In the past three games, Georgia Tech senior Trae Golden (23) he has 46 points, 12 assists and 2 turnovers in 97 minutes of play. (David Tulis / AP)

I think Tech, in its last four games, is playing the best it has all season, and perhaps the best it has played since coach Brian Gregory’s hire. It is unquestionably doing so offensively. Aside from observation, a few numbers bear this out to me. One is the assist/turnover ratio, which I wrote about in the game story on myajc. Its ratio over the four games is 1.97. Going into Friday’s games, the No. 25 team in the country had a 1.40 rate. The No. 1 team was 1.79.

The metric is a pretty valuable one, to me, in that it measures how well a team is creating (and converting) easy shots and handling the ball, which has not always been something the Jackets have done well. It’s one thing winning teams typically do. Going into Friday’s games, the top 15 teams in the country in assist/turnover ratio had a winning percentage of .755. For a 30-game schedule, that would be 22.6 wins.

In the Jackets’ first 14 ACC games, the rate was .91. In the past four, they’ve had three games in which they’ve recorded a 2.0 or better, the exception being the Florida State loss. That matched the three Tech had had in coach Brian Gregory’s first 89 games – his entire Tech career prior to the Notre Dame game – and two of them were against nonconference opponents.

Tech has turned the ball over fewer than 10 times in each of those four games. Going back at least as far as the first year of coach Paul Hewitt’s tenure, that had never happened – a stretch of 441 games. (Tech sports information associate director Mike Stamus dug that up.) The best Tech had done in those games, in fact, was just two back-to-back games with single-digit turnovers.

One thing Gregory says a lot is that his team has a small margin of error. As the Jackets have not been terribly efficient offensively, it’s meant that giving away chances with turnovers is deadly. At least for now, they’ve curtailed that significantly.

Why the change?

A few reasons. One, forward Robert Carter seems to improving on a game-to-game basis as he regains his agility and flow as he recovers from his torn meniscus.

Two, guard Trae Golden also is as close to 100 percent as he’s probably going to get after his groin injury. In the first five games he played after suffering the injury, he had 22 points, seven assists and seven turnovers in 107 minutes of play. In the past three games, he has 46 points, 12 assists and two turnovers in 97 minutes of play.

On a floater that he scored on, Gregory said, “He had explosiveness on that. That was good to see, plus he executed well in terms of getting us into our stuff. That was really good to see.”

Starting with the Notre Dame game, Gregory was able to pair up Corey Heyward and Golden in the starting lineup. As Golden recovered, Gregory started Chris Bolden for five games. Heyward gives little from a scoring standpoint – he has 28 points all season – but takes good care of the basketball and is a better defender than Bolden. Particularly as Golden and Carter’s conditions improved, it was a tradeoff Tech was more willing and able to make.

Tech finally has, more or less, a lineup that it wanted from the start of the season and all parts of it are playing healthy. Carter starting means Kammeon Holsey can come off the bench. In the past four games, it’s been obvious that the offense has functioned better, perhaps the Florida State game withstanding. Carter has been highly efficient and worked the high-low post game with Daniel Miller well. The offense has been more patient.

“We’re much better offensively, I would say, since Trae’s injury and him coming back and Robert getting back,” Gregory said. “Obviously, you have more offensive weapons. There was an eight-minute stretch today where Robert was as good as you’ve ever seen him, probably .”

Better defense – again, with Carter playing more effectively and giving Tech another defender in the middle – has created more opportunities in transition for easy baskets.

Against Syracuse and Virginia Tech in particular, Tech avoided the prolonged lapses in offense that were costly in losses to Virginia, N.C. State, Clemson and other games.

Consider this – Tech was averaging 1.00 points per possession in its first 14 games and giving up 1.13. Over the past four games, the Jackets have scored 1.07 points per possession and given up 1.05.

For the sake of comparison, the No. 1 offensive efficiency team, according to kenpom.com, is Creighton at 1.25. The No. 50 team is Saint Mary’s at 1.11. Defensively, Arizona is No. 1 at .873. The No. 50 team is .974.

Tech is ranked No. 176 in offense (1.04) and No. 78 in defense (99.8)

Why should you be hesitant to think a corner has been turned?

Such a dramatic uptick would seem difficult to sustain. It would be hard to believe that the Jackets could have turned things around so abruptly. It is a sample of questionable size. Virginia Tech was completely outmanned, Syracuse was playing in a funk and without forward Jerami Grant, Notre Dame is a pretty miserable defensive team and Tech’s 71 points against Florida State was not very reflective of what actually happened – the Jackets scored 10 points in the final 61 seconds.

Further, if this is, in fact, the best that the Jackets have played under Gregory, they’re still only 2-2 in those games (though one of the wins was highly signficant, the win at Syracuse, and one of the losses, at Notre Dame, could have been a win with one more stop and one more basket).

What does it mean for the ACC tournament?

I tend to believe the team is playing much better, but that is what makes the ACC tournament such an interesting set-up for Tech. With the No. 11 seed – which is where the media predicted the Jackets would finish, coincidentally – Tech will play No. 14 seed Boston College.

The Eagles are a funny bunch. They are 4-8 in games decided by five points or fewer, can’t play defense very well but give teams fits with the way they play offense. Tech swept Boston College, but could have easily lost both. Golden saved Tech from what would have been a colossal collapse at Chestnut Hill and then Marcus Georges-Hunt hit a game-winning 3-pointer with less than a second remaining at McCamish Pavilion. Further, there was the Olivier Hanlan-fueled 84-64 blowout in Greensboro last year.

However, Tech played the first game this season without Carter and the second without Golden. As such, the Jackets ought to be stronger on Wednesday, and Boston College should provide a litmus test for that. And if Tech gets past the Eagles, the next opponent will be No. 6 seed Clemson.

The Tigers are the opposite of Boston College – Tech could well have beaten Clemson in both games this season, but lost both. The Jackets did not play well in either game. Golden and Carter both missed the first game. Both played the second, but Carter scored one point. He has averaged 16.8 points since.

If Tech’s improvement is real, it’s entirely plausible that the Jackets could win their first two games and get to a quarterfinal game with No. 3 seed Duke. It’d be hard to expect much at that point – Tech would be playing their third game in 74 hours and the Blue Devils will not have played since Saturday.

But, the Jackets would finish with four wins in their final five games, which would be a strong finish while perhaps a bittersweet acknowledgement of what might have been.

Or, they could flame out in the first round by turning it over 14 times and going seven minutes with one basket in the middle of the second half. It’ll probably be one of the two.

“The Syracuse game, everybody looked pretty good, and then just today, we came out and kept it up,” Miller said. “Trae says he’s full go now. I thought he looked pretty good today. Robert’s playing well. Kam’s got the knee, but he always stays strong for us. Everybody’s just kind of playing together and everybody’s healthy. It hurt us throughout the tournament, but it’s a good way to go into the tournament.”

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