Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory may not see Tuesday night’s matchup with North Carolina as a measuring stick, an opportunity to gauge the Yellow Jackets’ progress since their 79-63 loss to the Tar Heels on Jan. 23.
“You’re not in a vacuum where, OK, these 40 minutes compare to those 40 minutes,” Gregory said.
If not that, then the Tar Heels will be a stress test for the Jackets, who will be challenged at McCamish Pavilion in ways they haven’t been since the teams last played. Further, UNC coach Roy Williams has altered the lineup by playing four guards in the starting lineup.
“It adds another dimension to their offensive arsenal, their ability to put the ball on the floor and stretch the defense,” Gregory said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
The first UNC game completed a brutal opening stretch of Tech’s ACC schedule. In their first five games, the Jackets played Miami, N.C. State, Duke and North Carolina, the league’s top four teams by RPI ranking, along with Virginia Tech. Tech opened 0-5.
The next seven games — Virginia, Florida State, Virginia Tech and two games each against Clemson and Wake Forest — have been more even matchups. Tech has gone 4-3 and the three losses all were by three points or fewer.
Said Gregory, “We’re a much better team than we were when we played them the first time.”
Even if Gregory won’t want to compare results, Tech will need to play demonstrably better than it did previously against the Tar Heels, as they present more challenges than the Jackets have had to answer since that point. The Tar Heels play at a faster pace than anyone in the ACC and, particularly with the addition of wing man P.J. Hairston to the starting lineup two games ago, boast considerable firepower.
On Saturday, UNC beat Virginia 93-81 with 13 3-pointers. The Cavaliers had entered the game allowing 52 points per game. Manning the power forward spot, Hairston scored 23 against Duke and 29 against Virginia.
Said guard Chris Bolden, “We’re going to have to be on their toes as soon as they walk in the gym.”
Against UNC, Tech failed to retreat on defense quickly enough, giving the Tar Heels numerous chances to score in transition. The Jackets compounded it with 19 turnovers, giving UNC head starts at the basket.
“They kind of beat us in transition a lot,” forward Robert Carter said. “We’re better in transition (defense) now.”
To counter, Tech will first need to play more effective offense, at least by working hard on the offensive glass and preferably by making baskets, to limit the Tar Heels’ opportunities to run.
“There has to be a greater sense of urgency and you can’t backpedal back on defense,” Gregory said. “You have to sprint back and get ready to defend.”
Bolden and guard Mfon Udofia will be vital cogs in that element of the game plan. Bolden, who made his second career start in the first UNC game, remembered being “just kind of tired” by the Tar Heels’ constant running. Bolden described the guards’ role as being the first back on defense, protecting the rim and not letting the ball — or anyone — get behind them.
“We’re kind of getting in a scramble situation, so we just match up,” Bolden said. “Open shots will get you beat. (The coaches) teach us that: Open shots get you beat, not mismatches.”