What is it with ACC teams doing complete 180s once the conference schedule starts? Maryland's opponent yesterday, Wake Forest, had losses on its resmué to Arizona State and Wofford before turning on the jets against Virginia Tech and then nearly taking out the Terrapins. Now their next opponent, Georgia Tech, is in the middle of a similar turnaround.
Before the ACC season began, the Yellow Jackets were riding a three-game losing streak and had dropped games to, among other teams, Mercer, Fordham, and Tulane. And then? They nearly defeat #3 Duke in their ACC opener, and last night beat N.C. State in Raleigh by 11 - the same N.C. State team to which Maryland lost by 7. A week ago, GT looked like one of the ACC's likely cellar dwellars; instead, they find themselves a real contender for the middle of the pack. And what looked like a likely win for Maryland has turned into a real battle.
(For the lazy folks: the game is on Sunday at 4:00 on the ACC Network, so check your local listings for TV info.)
The biggest question for Georgia Tech before the season started was who was going to replace the production of do-everything point guard Iman Shumpert, who jumped early for the NBA Draft. Truthfully, that's a hole no one's been able to fill just yet. But the Yellow Jackets have found a go-to scorer in Glen Rice, Jr., who put up an incredible 28 points against Duke and another 22 in the N.C. State upset. Rice has had some serious duds of games, including zero points in their surprising loss to Fordham and only five points in their depressing, worse-than-Maryland's whitewash against Alabama.
So Rice seems a little ... mercurial. When he's on, he's really on, and when he's off, he's not even taking shots. Right now, he seems like he's on: in his last two games, both against solid competition, he's scored 50 points on 17-27 shooting from the field (that's over 60%) and 7-12 (that's nearly 60%) from deep. He's athletic and can get points from more or less anywhere on the floor, though he's a little streaky with his shooting. He's 6-5 and can play either wing spot, which means he'll likely be matched up against Sean Mosley. I couldn't think of anyone better to put on him, but Mose will probably have his hands full.
(And before we get to far into this: yes, Rice's pops hooked up with Sarah Palin. In case you had forgotten. Get the jokes out of your system now.)
Thing is, Rice is sort of like a poor man's Terrell Stoglin - he's not nearly as consistently explosive as Stoglin, but Georgia Tech relies on him very much the same way Maryland relies on Stogs, though a bit less intensely. Again, this is a team that lost to Fordham when they couldn't get points from him. When he's held below 20 points, Georgia Tech is 2-5, with one of those wins coming over Savannah State. So if someone can shut down Rice - which, if I had to guess, would constitute forcing him to take shots from outside - they stand a good chance of bringing GT's entire offense to its knees.
Part of the reason for that, if I had to guess, would be the lack of a true point guard. Mfon Udofia is trying to fill that role but it just isn't in him; he's far too careless with the ball and doesn't really have a true point guard mentality. He's averaging only 2.5 assists per game to 2.9 turnovers - anytime your point guard has a negative A:TO ratio, it's a bad thing. Of course, he's had some solid games, too, including a three-assist, one-turnover, 17-point output against N.C. State. But by and large it looks like he's not a consistent floor general, and I have to wonder if extending pressure on him, even if only the halfcourt, might fluster him some.
But Udofia is still dangerous, as he's the Jackets' secondary scoring option if/when Rice isn't getting his to fall. He put up 19 and 17 on Duke and N.C. State, respectively, and his athleticism makes him a real threat in transition and getting to the rim. He's not a very good shooter, but he'll knock down an open look if you give it to him. He doesn't put up big points with any consistency, though, so much like Rice he's far from a sure thing.
Going down the roster, I can't say anyone else particularly frightens me. Jason Morris, a 6-5 sophomore who mans the 3 for GT, is probably next in line. He's flashed some ability to score in bunches - he had 17 points in 17 minutes against Fordham and 21 against Northwestern - but only averages nine points a game and doesn't shoot the ball particularly well, as he's more or less a pure athlete at this point in his career. (Think a Mychal Parker-type.) Kammeon Holsey, a 6-8 sophomore power forward, is pretty productive averaging nine points and five boards per game, but he doesn't bring height, athleticism, or numbers that should be a problem for James Padgett and Ashton Pankey in tandem.
I'm actually a bit more worried about Daniel Miller, Tech's 6-11 sophomore center. We saw against Wake Forest how much Alex Len can struggle when faced with, probably for the first time in his life, size that's athletic and coordinated (or thereabouts) as he is. Miller falls into that category, too. He's only averaging about 8 and 6 a game, but I'm much more concerned about how he could neutralize Len than anything he himself might do. That'll be an interesting development to watch.
The final big piece to the puzzle is Brandon Reed, a 6-3 combo guard who transferred from Arkansas State. Reed actually often starts above Rice, though the minutes breakdown certainly has Rice getting starter minutes while Reed is sometimes more of a sixth man. He's the only guy who can really play point outside of Udofia, but he's not much more effective at it, as his A:TO ratio is even worse than Udofia's. Still, he's good for about 8 points a game.
Past that, there's not a lot of consistent depth. They'll give ten minutes a game to freshman combo forward Julius Royal, plus another ten to combo guards Pierre Jordan and Nick Foreman, allowing them to go nine deep and push the tempo, if they so choose. But Royal, Jordan, and Foreman probably won't do a lot of damage on their own.
While we're on tempo, GT is actually pretty slow-paced. They average about 65 possessions per game, which is 267th in the country and ninth in the ACC. They've pushed the tempo occasionally (69 possessions against N.C. State) and I certainly wouldn't call them a slow-it-down team completely, but they're a little slower than what Maryland's been shooting for in recent weeks.
As a team, Tech is really impressive for what they can do defensively. Their defensive eFG% is 34th in the country and only six times all year have they allowed 40% shooting from the field. Udofia is a very good perimeter defender (I imagine he'll be on Stoglin), Miller is a tree down low who can block or at least affect shots, and guys like Morris and Rice are athletic enough to match up with most anyone.They don't force a lot of turnovers but will be a huge challenge for what Maryland wants to do offensively. Throw in the fact that they're one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the conference, too - and remember that offensive boards basically won Maryland the Wake game - and things could get dicey on that end.
Offensively, they're much less worrisome. Rice and Udofia can both go off at any given time but are both prone to slowdowns, too. GT as a team is average at best from the floor, hardly ever gets to the free throw stripe, and turns the ball over a downright scary amount - 11th in the ACC - especially when compared to their assists - also 11th in the ACC. They have no real three-point game outside of Rice knocking down the occasional open jumper, and even he doesn't get too many of them; they're (guess where?) 11th in the ACC in three-point shooting percentage.
All things told, their raw efficiency numbers put them at 10th in the ACC offensively, and it's not much better when adjusted by KenPom.
Yet they still just pulled off a pretty big upset, and nearly got another right before it. Their offensive efficiency were through the roof in both of those games, and they even knocked down most of their three-pointers. So it's clearly a group that can get hot, especially if Udofia and Rice are feeling it. Those are certainly the two real dangers, and they're the ones that have to be contained.
They thrive on the two-point field goal, whether in mid-range or at the hoop. Those are areas where Alex Len's size can have a huge impact, so he'll have to make a concerted effort to stay out of foul trouble and on the floor as much as he can while retaining effectiveness. A more agile 4 man (that is, Pankey over Padgett) might help too. Forcing them to take threes might be a consideration, even though we haven't really seen the zone all year long.
I haven't been able to watch Tech's victory over N.C. State yet, but I believe it'll be on ESPN3 so I might go back today or tomorrow and catch some of it to add to this post. But Tech is a tough group to assess. Their defense can cause problems in the ACC and when their offense clicks, this a clear middle-tier ACC team, perhaps even better than Maryland. But we've also seen them drop games to pretty awful teams, and their offensive parts don't really add up to a great unit.
First reaction is that this a game that Maryland should probably be winning, but Tech has certainly made that a riskier prediction to make. More coming throughout the rest of the week.