Jackets going nowhere fast

Photo courtesy of Danny Karnik

There is a common misconception among fans that there is more than one way to win a basketball game. This is a lie. From the Houston Rockets’ “Moreyball” high-octane offense fueled by three pointers and analytics to the grit-and-grind Memphis style of maximizing spacing while minimizing pace, to win a game of basketball, you must do one thing: score more points than the opponent.

No, this is not a John Madden-esque quip that you would hear from a poorly scripted NBA 2K announcer, because if it was so obvious, then perhaps more would start to wonder why Tech has struggled mightily to open this season instead of blaming the “Atlanta curse” or writing off the season as a failure along with the past ten years of Tech basketball.

Tech has been a low-scoring team for a number of years, but in the Josh Pastner era, advanced statistics reveal what the eye test confirms. The Jackets offense is ridiculously slow, to the tune of a meager 68.0 offensive possessions per game, good for the No. 334 quickest pace out of the 351 eligible NCAA teams. A decent chunk of this stagnation can be attributed to the missing presence of sophomore Josh Okogie and his 16.1 PPG in the 2016-17 season while he was sidelined due to a suspension. That being said, even without a go-to scorer for the better part of December, it is maddening to watch possessions that drag on for almost the entirety of the shot clock with screens that go nowhere until someone ultimately chucks up a contested jumper.

In the game against Grambling State where Tech opened as 24.5-point favorites, there was a stretch of time from 14:53 to 9:30 in the first half where the only scoring for Tech was a single free throw from Ben Lammers. Let me repeat that: Tech went five and a half minutes with only a single point against a team that’s never held a ranked opponent to within 40 points. The six botched offensive possessions during this drought averaged 19.1 seconds apiece which would average out to a league-low 62.1 possessions per game if extrapolated with an even split on possession time.

This brand of basketball should lead to low-scoring affairs for both teams; every second a team retains possession of the ball is a second the opponent is without it. Plus, since Tech leads their opponents in both steals per game (7.6 vs. 6.1) and blocks per game (5.2 vs. 3.6) while turning the ball over less (12.6 vs. 13.7), then it is fair to say that a passable offense coupled with a solid defense should lead the Jackets back to the championship round of the NIT in March — or even an NCAA tournament berth.

The problem with that outlook is twofold. First, up until this point in the season, Tech’s offensive efficiency has been far from passable and at times borders on downright atrocious. With an anemic 30.8 three-point percentage, Tech averages only 1.029 points per shot attempt, good for 265th in the country. Secondly, while the blocks and steals statistics may look all nice and pretty, the flaw with Tech’s defense lies not in what it does, but in what it fails to do.

Pastner, a branch off the old Lute Olson coaching tree, employs the 1-1-3 zone that Olson used judiciously throughout his tenure at the University of Arizona for years. Theoretically, this amoebic defense should allow for flexibility between the two guards as they rotate with the ball, providing constant pressure and covering the offside outlet pass while allowing the big men to lock down the baseline. This defense can be exploited with quick ball handlers that can shake the point defender and force the big men down low to rotate into help position, freeing up a man elsewhere on the court, but this has not been the case for the Jackets. Sophomore guard Tadric Jackson and freshman Jose Alvarado have been excellent in containing their defenders on the perimeter and forcing their opponents to pass.

The problem is what happens after that initial pass: uncontested threes. Prior to the Miami game, opponents had shot 38.0 percent from three, the 297th worst perimeter shooting defense in the country. It is doubtful that the reason Wright State, a team shooting 80 for 265 (30.1 percent, No. 322 nationally) against non-Tech opponents, was able to go 9-20 from deep in another one of Tech’s stymieing losses is due to chance. Out of the nine made three-pointers, only one of them was taken with a defender within two feet of the shooter, or the official definition of a contested shot. Tech’s defensive scheme depends on there being a large amount of space between the guards to ensure that rotating onto shooters is possible, and so far this season, that has not been the case.

So, what is the point of all this? Where does a huge upset against No. 15 Miami fit in with this narrative of prolonged offensive possessions and ineffective perimeter zone defense?

Coming into Wednesday, Tech failed to score more points than their opponents because they took low percentage shots at a low rate while allowing their opponent to take higher percentage shots. It just so happened that they made those attempts at the same low rate. The Miami game is what happens when two teams with identical defense-heavy game plans meet and one team gets unlucky.

Outside of Okogie and Alvarado, Tech’s offensive performance was lackluster. In fact, Miami’s top-five defense was true to form, limiting Tech to a team 39 percent from the field and a ghastly one for ten from three-point range. In fact, the Jackets only scored five more points than Miami’s 2nd-best 58.9 OPP PPG average. In other words, the Hurricanes were two allowed baskets away from another stellar outing by a dominant ACC defense. Tech won because Miami missed 11 out of their first 13 shots to lead the second half, turning a tie game at the half into a quick 12-point hole that ultimately proved to be too deep to climb out of.

Miami shooting 4-19 (21.1 percent) from deep was extremely unexpected, and upon looking at the few made shots that were taken, the same symptoms of the defender being too far away and jumping for a chance at a block were still present. If the teams played again right now, even the slightest regression to the mean would be enough to tip the scales in Miami’s favor in the rematch simply because there were no new defensive looks offered by Tech that can be attributed to Miami’s misfortune besides just pure bad luck. The team will be tested in the weeks to come by Notre Dame, Virginia, UNC and Florida State — all teams in the top 50 for three-point percentages.

Once opponents start to get increasingly better at shooting the deep ball, only time will tell if the “pace and space” philosophy that Pastner has instilled in this program will be able to rise up to the challenge. Unless the Jackets realize significant contributions from a healthy Curtis Haywood II or perhaps a revitalized Ben Lammers, it will be nigh impossible for Pastner’s team to keep up with elite teams without their unforced errors. Perhaps sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.