Has the Light Come On for Tech?

Jan. 13, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

In the spirit of kindred, uh, spirits, we’re going to drift around today in looking at what may be a metamorphosis of Georgia Tech’s basketball team.

There will be talk of transmissions, paying bills, a Yellow Jacket point guard backing his teammates up against a wall and growing up before our eyes, and coach Brian Gregory telling me to get lost.

We will not visit the three-legged Corgi I saw Friday on the way back from Tech, although the spunky bowser was interesting.

No, we’re going to zero in — kind of — on the utterly fascinating Jackets.

It’s early, and far from a complete process, yet foolish to ignore a present possibility: that Tech may be more than a member of the ACC this season, but rather a squad that will have some say in it.

After all, the Jackets a week ago were drifting as if following a compass wrecked by a rogue magnet.

They bottomed out in a dreadful “home” loss to Alabama.

Then, the Jackets rebounded to take Duke to the wire and win at N.C. State, an accomplishment significant enough that former coach Bobby Cremins sent a congratulatory text message to first-year coach Brian Gregory.

So the question, asked radio-style (which means by way of incomplete sentence): Is this Jekyll & Hyde, or an epiphany realized?

Wanting to know, I asked Gregory, and you might say he was in predictive mode. Before I could finish saying that I had been at the Alabama game but absent the Duke or N.C. State games, he interrupted. He sensed that I wanted some explanation for what the heck happened to his team between the ‘Bama bashing and the two ACC games.

“Stay the &%^* away from games then,” he said with a smile.

It’s not me. I’m not bad luck.

It’s Mfon. He’s growing up.

As recently as last week, you could read here — not that it took a basketball scientist or a heretical hack to make the case — that one of the Jackets’ very biggest problems was deficient point guard play.

That was an indictment of Mfon Udofia, a two-guard by nature who’s a one now by necessity. The transition hasn’t been without cliff slips.

In Tech’s first 14 games through Alabama, he averaged 10.2 points on 38.3 percent shooting, made 27.7 percent of his three-point shots and — this is big — he had 10 more turnovers than assists.

Against Duke and N.C. State, he scored 19 and 17 points while making 11-of-17 shots and 5-of-7 treys. He had seven assists and four turnovers, and earned a heap of praise from Coach K.

To offer an example of Udofia’s growth, Gregory mentioned a situation against Duke where the Blue Devils switched into a zone, and Mfon recognized it and dialed up a perfect zone-buster play and ran it for a score.

“I feel like [the game is] slowing down,” Udofia said Friday. “I’m making better decisions. That comes from watching film and seeing the mistakes you’ve made. It’s just being coached and learning from my mistakes.”

It’s not just that.

Udofia’s doing some serious coaching, too. Moments after that hideous Alabama game he busted the collective rumps of his teammates in the Philips Arena locker room.

“Everybody’s playing a lot harder, and it started with Mfon,” said sophomore center Daniel Miller. “After the Alabama game, he said, ‘Guys, I’m willing to play as hard as I can every game if you will do it with me.’ “

There’s often chatter among teammates after games, but, Miller said, “Not like that; maybe a couple words. This was pretty intense . . . he was calling us out, getting us ready to go.”

If you read Sting Daily last week, you saw where Gregory agreed with my suggestion that the institution of new protocols, new offense, defense, etc., could be expedited by the presence of a leader or leaders among players.

It’s possible that while I covered the Atlanta Falcons, the only thing that coach Jim Mora said that resonated with me to where it made me stop and think was his contention that, without peer-to-peer accountability among players, it doesn’t matter how sound a coach’s systems are; they won’t take completely.

A coach can preach until he’s blue in the face, but until players buy in and account for themselves to their coaches, themselves and their teammates, it’s going to be a half sell.

In that same SD story last week, Gregory hinted that the emergence of leaders on his team might be delayed because players were less able to lead when they weren’t sure what they were doing themselves.

Suddenly, it seems, Udofia knows better what he’s doing.

Plus, he got PO’ed. The Alabama game was his last straw.

“I was mad because I want to win every game. I’m a competitor,” he said Friday. “I just wanted to make sure my teammates were going to be there, too. I was just letting everybody know you’ve got to lay it on the line, put everything on the court, compete on every possession each and every game.”

This seems a quick flip.

“It is a process, and you never know when that, ‘click,’ is suddenly going to happen,” Gregory said of his players seeming to get the picture. “Now, I’ve been through it enough, seen it at a couple stops, where it looks like you’ve got a lot of things figured out and … the term I use is, ‘slippage.’ You go back[ward].”

Gregory was channeling my transmission, but in reverse. Mine didn’t click in; it slipped out. Fourth gear is gone, and I don’t think it’s coming back. My beloved 1989 Landcruiser is nearing the finish line.

The Jackets are not. Their coach is hopeful, in fact, of them finding yet higher gears. Nothing is guaranteed here.

“What you try to do as you rebuild is [make] the points between the slippage further apart,” Gregory said Friday. “Hopefully, we’re in that situation now because there was a point earlier in the year where we were defending and rebounding well against quality teams, and then we had a two-week hiatus from doing the things that we need to do.”

To help safeguard against the possibility of back-sliding, I’ve worked up a plan.

After finishing a chat, the Tech coach noticed some mail sticking half out of my back pocket, and said, “You better pay those bills.”

Here’s the deal: he pays my bills, and I’ll stay away from his games. Everybody wins.

I fear, however, a slippage in pending negotiations.

Sometimes, it feels good to say I told you so. Think I’m being snarky? Let me know at stingdaily@gmail.com.

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