ATLANTA — At halftime of Saturday’s nationally-televised Georgia Tech-North Carolina game, ESPN analyst Jay Williams posed the question some Yellow Jackets fans had quietly pondered the last few weeks: “Georgia Tech, who are you?”
Up one minute, down the next, the Yellow Jackets during their early ACC stretch have provided plenty of fodder for such inquiries.
Just consider this. On the heels of yet another road loss to rival Georgia, the Yellow Jackets returned home nearly a week-and-a-half ago to pull out a dramatic late-game win over then-No. 4-ranked Duke. Following that performance, they dropped a game by seven points to a mediocre Virginia team before walking away with Saturday’s narrow 73-71 win over North Carolina.
As the wins and losses have see-sawed back and forth, Georgia Tech’s (13-4, 2-2) exact identity has been of keen interest to pundits and spectators alike.
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But tonight, with another ranked ACC foe coming to Alexander Memorial Coliseum and with their star guard appearing to be back at full health, the Yellow Jackets hope to prove once and for all that they have figured out exactly who they are.
“It’s extremely tough winning on the road in the ACC so when it comes to defending your court, you’ve got to make it tough for the other team,” Georgia Tech guard Iman Shumpert said.
Fresh off a career-high 30-point effort against the Tar Heels, Shumpert is looking for a repeat performance as No. 19 Georgia Tech hosts No. 17 Clemson in another pivotal nationally-televised contest.
Execution offensively and defensively came with much difficulty for the Tar Heels early in Saturday’s game, as the Yellow Jackets stalked to a 42-28 first-half lead.
Out-muscling, out-running and out-hustling North Carolina in that opening half, the Yellow Jackets gave the game a high-energy, frantic pace that they have long been searching for.
According to head coach Paul Hewitt, Shumpert and his fully rehabbed, surgically-repaired right knee are the main reasons why.
“He’s understanding now how we want to play in terms of the tempo and attacking people, trying to keep people on their heels,” Hewitt said Monday. “I don’t think earlier when he got back from his injury, he was taking advantage of his physical skills enough; in terms of he’s bigger, stronger, faster than a lot of the guards that he’s going to face.”
Injured early in the season, Shumpert was shelved at the start of December for a surgery that got him back just in time for the Yellow Jackets’ early-January road swing to Charlotte and Georgia.
But when he returned, he was not in full sync. Shooting just 6-for-25 from the field in his first three games back, his rhythm had not fully returned.
“When he first came back, he didn’t have that same pop,” forward Gani Lawal said. “But I said, ‘Give him about two or three games, it’s going to come back around.’ And he did more than come around on Saturday with 30 points.
“He’s playing exactly how we want him to play. He’s shooting the ball well, making good decisions with the ball and getting us involved.”
In addition to playing an essential role offensively, Shumpert has added an element of defensive guard play that may have been missing earlier this season due to inexperience, Hewitt said.
“Obviously, Gani statistically is our best player, but the guy that really has the biggest impact on the game is Iman,” Hewitt said.
Lawal is averaging 15.2 points and 9.2 rebounds.
Hewitt went on to add that Shumpert’s ability to redirect shots and passes on defense has led to the Yellow Jackets’ ability to run the floor aggressively.
In that vein, Hewitt said Shumpert has excelled in one statistical area his staff uses to track such play: deflections.
“(Shumpert) calls himself the “Deflection King” because he’s getting in lanes, he’s stealing passes, getting easy baskets for run-ups,” Lawal said. “Iman is big-time on defense, as well.
According to Hewitt, Shumpert deflected 14 passes or shots against North Carolina. In a 40-minute game, that is an average of roughly one every three minutes.
“If you’re getting one deflection every five minutes, that’s good,” Hewitt said.
The Yellow Jackets will need as many deflections as they can get tonight, as Clemson boasts some of the ACC’s best offensive numbers.
The Tigers are fourth in the conference in scoring, and are led by heralded forward Trevor Booker (15.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and guards Demontez Stitt (11.3 ppg) and metro-Atlanta native Tanner Smith (10.7 ppg).
“I’ve got to admit, it’s always fun going against a big-time player, especially in the frontcourt,” Lawal said of Booker. “It’ll be a great challenge, but we’re looking forward to it.”
According to the Greenville News, Stitt is questionable to play after suffering a foot injury in Clemson’s win Saturday over N.C. State.