Georgia Tech comes into Cameron on a four game losing streak, having lost to UConn, Clemson, Miami, and Virginia Tech, and having lost five out of their last six. Georgia Tech has fallen to 11-14, and it's a bit of a mystery as to why.
There's no question that Tech took a hit when both Thaddeus Young (7 ppg for the Sixers) and Javaris Crittenton (3.6 ppg for the Lakers/Grizzlies) left after their freshman year, but there's still some real talent on this team.
Anthony Morrow, Jeremis Smith, Zach Peacock, Gani Lawal, Alade Aminu, Lewis Clinch, Maurice Miller, and D'Andre Ball are all at least reasonably athletic, and while Matt Causey is more limited, he's a real gamer.
Moreover, they're not just athletic, they're pretty big and athletic, in the style Paul Hewitt prefers. And between Clinch, Morrow and Causey, they have outside shooting pretty much covered. So what gives?
Part of the problem, Hewitt has said, is defense, but part of the problem, too has been at the point. This would be a pretty different team if Crittenton had stuck around. Miller is a freshman with potential, but he's not a guy who was ready to go from the beginning. Against Virginia Tech this past Saturday, though, he scored 29 points, had five assists, and four boards.
When we heard early that Tech was feeling good about Causey in the pre-season, it seemed ludicrous. They were right, though: this guy is a warrior. He's got more guts than some entire teams.
Still, Hewitt is right; defense is a problem. Georgia Tech is last in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 75.8 ppg. Only State has a lower scoring margin (-1.4) than Tech's (+1.5).
They're also last in field goal pct. defense at .454, and they're last in defensive rebounds, at 22.24.
Rebounding, which should be a strength for them, is weak as well: Tech is 11th in the league at -0.2
But to some extent, what's happening to Hewitt's program is what happened to Bobby Cremins' before him: he's a victim of his own coaching style.
Cremins typically relied on no more than seven players, and recruited brilliant talents and let them play.
Hewitt's approach has been pretty much the opposite: he recruits tall, athletic players, as many as he can get, guys who can run and jump and ideally slash and defend. The idea is to run and press other teams into submission, bringing waves of players off the bench in the process. It's philosophically similar to what John Thompson did at Georgetown.
Part of the problem has been that Tech has recruited somewhat capriciously, going after a guy like Mohammad Faye (since transferred) or Ishmael Muhammad, or Paco Diaw (also gone) or Ra'Sean Dickey, who was lost earlier this year to academics, or Zam Frederick, who left for South Carolina where his father once starred. Most of these guys are great athletes who have some things to learn about basketball.
Thaddeus Young was sort of the answer to some of these problems, because he is a very skilled player, and in fairness if Jarrett Jack had stuck around fo rhis senior year, or Crittenton hadn't bolted, Tech's fans would be less restless. Their departure really gutted this team, and ironically, it did so in much the same way early departures crippled Bobby Cremins
Still, there are some matchup problems for Duke, though not as bad as they might have been had Dickey been playing. Jeremis Smith is built a lot like DeMarcus Nelson, only bigger. Duke doesn't have a natural matchup with Lani Gawal, who is 6-8 but plays bigger. Nor does Duke match up well with 6-10 Alade Aminu, or 6-8 bull Zach Peacock, if he plays much (he got nine minutes against Tech but played heavily last season, starting at one point).
But as we've learned, Duke's size cuts both ways. You have to be prepared to defend them on the perimeter and to shut off the drive, and you have to take care of the ball, and Tech hasn't always done that well this season. And if you haven't noticed this, watch for it the rest of the way: when things are going Duke's way, the other teams run out of gas, and guys bend over and hold their shorts.
Still, as Coach K pointed out, although 23-3 is a wonderful record, and this team has learned to overcome a lot of obstacles, it is a young team and hasn't really grokked what championship ball requires. They're learning, though, and watching them grow together has been a really rewarding experience.