If you want some great information on a college basketball matchup, the best thing to do is to go to the experts, and there aren’t many more expert than ESPN college basketball analyst and commentator, Len Elmore.
Elmore is currently working on the ACC trail for the Worldwide Leader, and is in town to call the Georgia Tech-Pittsburgh game this Tuesday night at 9pm.
I had the opportunity to have a chat with the former ABA and NBA star about his thoughts on the game, and what to expect from both the Panthers and the Yellow Jackets.
YJU: Len, this is Pittsburgh’s first year in the ACC, and they haven’t faced Georgia Tech since 1989. Without the normal conference familiarity, what do you expect to see overall in tomorrow night’s game?
LE: This is going to be a battle of defense and rebounds, won in the trenches. Both of these coaches focus a lot on both defense and rebounding, and both have great big men to anchor that style of play.
YJU: To that point, Georgia Tech’s Daniel Miller is probably one of the best centers in the ACC. He’ll be countered by Pitt’s Talib Zanna, who is averaging eight rebounds a game. With them more than likely going head to head most of the night, who would you give the edge to in that battle?
LE: If Miller can get position offensively he might have a little edge on Zanna, because he’s so tall and long and can really stretch to the basket. Defensively I think it’s kind of a wash, as both men are very strong on the block and on grabbing the defensive boards. Both men are going to be big keys to their team.
YJU: Now when you talk about defense, Georgia Tech plays an excellent half-court defensive set. But the Panthers use a lot of ball movement and love to dish the ball around. How do you see the Yellow Jackets countering that type of play? Will they have to fall back into a zone defense or can they play man defense against this type of offense?
LE: I think Georgia Tech can match up playing man, but they’ll really need to deny those passes to the wings, and blow up the system that Pitt wants to use. The Panthers are very active and want to get that ball out on the wing and then change direction, getting the defenders out of position. If Tech can’t keep that from happening, they may have to fall back into a zone.
YJU: Lets talk about some injuries. First, Pittsburgh just lost a key bench player–Durand Johnson–to a season-ending knee injury in the win against Wake Forest on Saturday. Will losing Johnson have a big effect on Pittsburgh, and how do they overcome it?
LE: Yes, I think it will have a pretty big effect. Johnson has been pretty much their number three scorer, putting up almost 9 points per game. He’s one of those guys who is not only a scorer, but is a dependable player who gives you a lot of good minutes. I think Jamie [Dixon] will have to find the right rotation and how they are going to replace him. It’s going to take some time, but he’s got a very deep roster so I think they’ll be able to overcome it.
YJU: On Georgia Tech’s side, they lost forward Robert Carter, Jr. back at the end of December, and have been struggling to find that right mix of players and the rotation to make up for his scoring and work on the boards. It looked like Brian Gregory finally found a good mix against Notre Dame. Do you think that might be the right plan going forward?
LE: Yes, it looked like getting more out of [Quinton] Stephens and Chris Bolden especially made a difference. But I think Kammeon Holsey is the key to this thing. I’m not sure Georgia Tech has another guy who can give you what Carter did in terms of rebounding and points, but Holsey is the closest they have, and when he gets down and gives Miller some help, his size makes a big difference. It’s hard replacing a guy as important as Carter.
YJU: Let’s talk about some intangibles. Pittsburgh is a pretty young team, with only a few upper-classmen on the roster. They’ve just entered into the top 25, only have one loss, and haven’t dropped any ACC games yet. Do you think coming into an atmosphere like McCamish Pavilion in a late night game on national TV–with the added pressure of now being a ranked team–will have any effect on this young team, or do they look like a solid, even-keeled bunch?
LE: I think they look like a very solid bunch, because that’s what Jamie demands of his teams. He makes sure that they don’t lose focus from the game by all the distractions. I covered Pittsburgh from back in their days in the old Big East, and he’s always coached his teams that way. I don’t see them losing any real focus in this game.
YJU: And on Georgia Tech’s end, they are now 8-1 at home, and obviously play a lot better when at McCamish. Would you say the “Thrillerdome” is back – that home court mystique that the Yellow Jackets had for so long?
LE: I think its on the way back. They do play better at home, and that’s important. I think it will be all the way back when they start filling those seats.
YJU: Ok, some final thoughts. Give me two big keys you see for Pittsburgh in this game.
LE: Pittsburgh must dictate tempo. That’s their game. They’ll want to run the ball fast down the court, and get Tech out of position defensively. That’s what this game is all about. They’ll also need to shoot the ball from outside, particularly 3-pointers, and stretch the court.
YJU: And for Georgia Tech, two keys.
LE: First, they need to be sure to funnel to Daniel Miller, both offensively and defensively, and let him do what he does best. Play some ball-movement and get the ball into Miller’s hands. Then, both Georges-Hunt and Golden need to be sure to move the ball around, and not take quick, bad shots. That will play right into Pittsburgh’s hands.
Len Elmore will be calling the game at McCamish Pavilion tomorrow night alongside play-by-play man, Tom Hart. The game can be viewed on ESPNU and online using WatchESPN at 9pm ET.