Georgia Tech Still Struggling to Finish Close Games

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 4th, 2016

With just under six minutes to go in the Smith Center on Saturday afternoon, Georgia Tech was in great position to snag a precious ACC road win in Chapel Hill. The Yellow Jackets had started strong, leading by three at the half. North Carolina was playing its third game in six days, and with a Big Monday road trip to Florida State looming, it seemed as if the Tar Heels were looking ahead. Roy Williams’ team was uncharacteristically sloppy on offense early, committing seven first half turnovers, and was forced to battle Georgia Tech’s beefy frontline without injured starting center Kennedy Meeks. However, just as it did so many times in ACC play last season, Brian Gregory’s squad just couldn’t close the deal, falling by a final score of 86-78.

 Adam Smith's three point shooting has brought balance to Georgia Tech's offense. (Photo by Chris Rodier/Icon Sportswire).

Adam Smith’s three point shooting has brought balance to Georgia Tech’s offense. (Photo by Chris Rodier/Icon Sportswire).

The pivotal moment in the game came when Adam Smith missed a wide open three with 5:41 to play and the Yellow Jackets on top 67-66. That miss kicked off an 8-0 Tar Heel run to take control of the contest, leaving Gregory wondering if his team will ever get over the hump in finishing winnable games. Not all hope is lost, however; this season’s group has shown potential that it may have what it takes to turn that trend around in 2016. That faith rests largely in a much improved offense, led by three seniors: center Charles Mitchell, wing Marcus Georges-Hunt, and the sharp shooting Smith. After Saturday’s game, Roy Williams talked about facing this year’s Yellow Jacket offense:

“I told Brian [Gregory] — this was before the game — that I liked his club. It’s so, so much better than they were last year, and he’s done a great job with them, got some new guys that look like they’ve been there the whole time the way they’ve bought into what he wants for them to do. But when you’ve got a three-point shooter like [Adam] Smith, you’ve got a guy that drives it to the basket and gets to shoot 15 free throws like Marcus and you’ve got [Charles] Mitchell and those guys doing everything inside, it’s tough to guard that kind of team.”

In each of Gregory’s first four seasons, the Jackets have finished in the lower half of the country in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating. But this year, Georgia Tech’s offense currently ranks 58th in the nation, a remarkable turnaround considering the roster is nearly unchanged from a year ago. It’s pretty obvious that the key player in this improved offense is Smith, one of four starters that Gregory brought in via transfer. When Smith left Virginia Tech last spring and decided to complete his career in Atlanta, Gregory filled a void that has plagued his program throughout his tenure – outside shooting. Almost single-handedly, Smith has added 10 percentage points to the team’s three point shooting from last year (26.7% to 36.7%). Smith has taken 39.1 percent of his team’s total threes, so his accuracy (45.4%) is enough to make up for the mediocre shooting of his teammates (31.1%). With defenses now forced to deal with an outside threat, driving angles and interior space have opened up. Another major area of improvement for Georgia Tech this year is ball-handling. The Jackets are only turning the ball over on 15.3 percent of possessions, a dramatic improvement from the 2014-15 season (19.6%).

With those kind of numbers, Gregory should expect his team to execute better in critical moments of close games, something that rarely happened last year in conference play. That being said, it could also be a matter of mentally getting over the hump – something that only happens when it happens. The Yellow Jackets continue a tough early-ACC schedule with a road trip to Pittsburgh (KenPom #28), followed up by a home game with Virginia (#3) and another away game against Notre Dame (#31). If Georgia Tech emerges from that stretch 0-4 in the ACC, the confidence level might be dangerously low and difficult to overcome, only intensifying the pressure on Gregory. However, if the Jackets can pull off at least one upset in that stretch, it may find a springboard to a successful season. And with four senior starters, it’s now or never for Gregory to prove he can make Georgia Tech relevant again in the ACC.

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

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