Upward Bound

March 23, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Even with the attention being paid today to the Georgia Tech women’s basketball team, when the Yellow Jackets will try to upset No. 1 Baylor, the men’s team is not dormant.

The parts are moving as part of a process that will continue right up until Brian Gregory’s second season begins . . . and beyond.

Folks, you can dream about a quick turnaround in Tech’s fortunes, and we can all hope that dreams will come true, but don’t be shocked otherwise.

There may be a large improvement next season, but frankly there is not a lot of precedent behind the concept of flipping the switch in a conference like the ACC as opposed to a mid-major league.

Seniors Nick Foreman and Derek Craig will graduate, junior Glen Rice Jr., was dismissed from the team and will transfer, and another transfer (or more) is not out of the question.

Next year’s freshmen group will constitute one of the top 20 recruiting classes in the nation. Also, Kentucky transfer Stacy Poole, a swing man, will become eligible to play for the Jackets in the second semester.

The new blood, though, will not a guarantee that the on-court product will re-invent the game. Returning players must improve, and noticeably.

Senior-to-be Mfon Udofia has to be better if Tech is to be better.

In the three games prior to the season-ending loss to Miami in the ACC Tournament, Udofia’s assists-to-turnovers ratio was 19-7. That was a big jump, and a sign that he’s capable of giving Gregory what he wants.

Gregory and his staff will look for him to be better still at not just playing with his head up with greater awareness, but for all of his teammates to be better when the ball is in their hands. That will be a huge part of Tech’s fate in 2012-’13.

“Overall, our perimeter players need to get much better with the ball, and they need to take thousands and thousands of shots — off the dribble, spot-ups,” Gregory said. “Those guys need to get in the gym together because one of the things we emphasize is making plays for each other.

“The better you are with the ball, the better you become at creating scoring opportunities. Half the shots you take are off the dribble. If you’re not a good ball-handler, then half your shots you’re maybe not under control.”

Tech was a low-assist/high-turnover team (340-448) that did not shoot especially well (42.7 percent), at least not consistenly. It was a bad formula. The only way to succeed more often than not with those broken arrows is to out-rebound opponents by a huge margin and/or force a landslide of turnovers.

The latter certainly won’t be happening unless Tech recruits a staggering number of tremendous on-the-ball defenders; Gregory said in no uncertain terms that his teams will never play a high-gamble style of defense.

So the Jackets need to play better together, better sense shot opportunities not only for themselves but for one another … and generally work more as a unit rather than five individuals.

Under current NCAA rules, coaches are not allowed to spend time on the court with players in the summer. That rule is up for review soon, however, and if changed it could be different as soon as this summer.

Should that happen to the tune of a couple hours a week, Gregory said the Jackets will not work on plays nor schemes but rather individual skills like ball-handling, setting up teammates, post moves for the bigs, and the like.

The bigs — Daniel Miller, Kammeon Holsey and Nate Hicks — need to broaden their repertoires. Miller ought to be more aggressive offensively, as he was at the end of the season. Holsey needs to cut down turnovers and his tendency to get in foul trouble by playing defense more with his hands than his feet. All of this can be tended to in offseason work.

In Miller’s case, for example, he’s more likely to be more aggressive if he’s more confident in what he does. So, he needs to work, work, work on his post moves.

“I think a big jump for Daniel and Kam is to understand they’re going to get the ball,” Gregory said. “Their aggressiveness, and their decision-making in when to be aggressive and when to kick out . . . needs to improve.

“The more confident those guys are to make those plays around the basket, the better they’ll play next year.”

The process of turning around a fallen program is rarely comfortable.

When Indiana fired Kelvin Sampson in 2008, the program fell quickly into a ruinous morass. It was on the way before he was jettisoned, actually, by virtue of misguided operating principles that came to roost once he left.

Tom Crean was hired from Marquette, and in his first season the Hoosiers went 6-25, 1-17 in the Big 10. That team was a mess on the court, and had its share of off-court issues as well.

The Hoosiers were 10-21, 4-14 in `09-’10 — not exactly a supersonic leap forward in Crean’s second season. Last season, Indiana was 12-20, 3-15.

This year, the Hoosiers made it to the Sweet 16 at 27-8, 11-7 — and a hugely-hyped recruiting class is on the way to Bloomington. This was written before IU’s game Friday in the Georgia Dome against Kentucky.

The word, “process,” becomes tedious in times like these. It’s real, though. We all have an end result in mind, Gregory included. But there’s no time-travel machine to step into that can expedite the journey.

“I think I came in with my eyes wide open and so forth, but every day there’s surprises. The program was broke; it needed to be fixed,” Gregory said. “It’s under construction, and when you do that you can’t always see the progress and then boom! You see it.

“This is a big spring and summer for us. So much the first year is coach-driven; everything is new to the guys. We have to get some stuff now that is player-driven where the guys are setting the standards and making sure people are matching those.

“I hope we’re much improved next year. Does that put us at the competitive level? I hope so. Sometimes, the winning on the court is kind of the last step. I want to accelerate it as much as I can, but we need to take care of our business now so we can get ready to go in the fall.”

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