Good Things In Store For Tech Hoops

April 3, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

Rendered a spectator weeks ago, Brian Gregory has had plenty of time to scheme recently, and Georgia Tech’s basketball coach has cooked up big-picture plans to improve next season’s team.

For the Yellow Jackets to take a real step forward, Gregory said, two areas of improvement leap to the top of the priority list: his squad has to gird its mental strength, and improve defensively.

The point of this is not to review on a case-by-case basis games that went awry, games where the Jackets (16-17, 6-12 ACC) were right in the mix as crunch time rolled around only to let go of the rope.

But to use one very good example, they were tied with eventual ACC champion Virginia with 7:06 left, at home, and holding the ball yet lost 64-45.

The Cavaliers proved to be the league’s gold standard, but the Jackets had a very real shot at what would have been the win of the year – even better than their win at Syracuse – only to lose their grip.

“We always evaluate two ways: player meetings, [where] you have to look at individuals and their development . . . and the big picture in terms of the team, where we’re at and what we need.

“[A priority will be] developing a little greater mental toughness, and cohesiveness in terms of the last eight minutes of games. The same thing is going to happen next year. It happens to everybody. You play 31 games and 20 of them are going to come down to the last eight minutes.”

To be fair, the Jackets had issues with cohesiveness in part because they had issues with manpower.

With substantial injuries to Travis Jorgenson, Jason Morris, Robert Carter, Trae Golden and Kam Holsey plus the dismissal of guard Solomon Poole, the season was a non-stop mix-and-match affair.

With seniors Morris, Golden, Holsey and Daniel Miller moving on, the Jackets will have to forge a stronger identity with the additions of shooting guard Tadric Jackson and big man Ben Lammers (and a recruit or transfer or two yet to be determined) and the incorporation of redshirt forward Robert Sampson.

Commonly, a team’s starting point guard ranks high on the leadership totem pole and Golden met that criteria even though he was at Tech just one season after transferring from Tennessee.

Golden, however, probably did not have as firm a grip on that role as to be considered ideal both because while he was a senior and the team’s clear offensive leader more often than not, he was in his first and only season at Tech.

He earned his leadership spurs on the fly, and a groin injury in the second half of the season further compromised his ability to impose will.

Moving forward, this is a question that must be addressed firmly: who will lead next year’s squad?

Jorgenson may be the early leader to start at the point next season; Gregory said that, “I envisioned that after going through the first month and half of practice, if not starting then playing 25 minutes a game.”

But Jorgenson blew out a knee.

A team’s leader or leaders does/do not have to include a point guard. When the Jackets went to the National Championship Game 10 years ago this week, Marvin Lewis – a shooting guard – was without question a squad commander.

Gregory’s first Tech recruiting class – Marcus Georges-Hunt, Robert Carter Jr. and Chris Bolden – will be juniors in the fall. They’re obvious candidates. Perhaps Sampson can take some of the responsibility, too, although that’s a guess.

The role(s) must be filled strongly for the Jackets to make earnest progress.

“I think one of our biggest challenges is going to be our leadership,” Gregory said. “What is leadership? A lot of people define it different ways. Influencing and inspiring [teammates] . . . to become better [is important]. Sometimes that’s a pat on the back. Sometimes it’s a foot to the butt.

“I always say your team is defined by your leadership, your toughness and your chemistry. Leadership is going to be a big, big part and we need to start cultivating guys and in terms of them understanding that.”

Tech also must improve defensively.

That’s a weird observation inasmuch as Gregory is a defense-first guy, but the Jackets slipped on that end of the court last season.

Their points-allowed average of 66.8 per game ranked No. 83 out of 345 Division I teams. Other numbers: defensive field goal percentage of 41.9 (88), and 3-point defensive field goal percentage of 33.2 (112).

“We weren’t a sieve, but we can be a lot better and we will be a lot better,” the coach said.

Miller, one of the top shot blockers in ACC history and quite a dissuader of rim attacks even when he wasn’t swatting attempts, will be gone. Sampson was impressive as a shot blocker in practices, but won’t be stationed near the rim quite like Miller as his athleticism and quickness will push him out.

So, simply put, the Jackets are going to change defensively. Their steal totals (5.2 per game, ranking 273) ought to go up because on-the-ball defense will become more of a focus.

Miller won’t be behind everyone else to frequently, “clean up the mess,” as the coach said, if the Jackets are beaten routinely off the bounce.

“We’re going to have to become a lot better defenders on the perimeter,” Gregory said. “At the same time, depending on who’s out there we will be able to have our bigs go out on the perimeter a little more, and we’ll be able to extend our defenses a little more, and guard ball screens a little differently.

“Our perimeter guys are going to have to take an unbelievable amount of pride in covering the ball one-on-one because we’re going to have to do a great job defending the dribble.”

Once all his players are on the scene, and that number will include one or two not already on campus or committed, the coach believes next season will be an improvement.

“Our first class will be juniors, and hopefully they’ll have that down,” Gregory said. “[We’re] up in the air with Ben [Lammers] due to the knee injury, but I don’t think there’s any question that Tadric can make a difference right away.

“The guy can put the ball in the basket, he’s got a college-ready body, and he loves to play . . . he’s ready to play, and he’s going to be counted on. We need him to raise our level of competitiveness on a daily basis.

“Because of all [the injuries], our practices were not as good. They were not as competitive. You just don’t have the numbers . . . then, those guys [were] playing so many minutes because of the injuries and you have to tone down practices. I think Tadric is going to help us with all that.”

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