Winning Mentality

Feb. 14, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

In a season generally dim enough that any glimmer of hope might be mistaken for a sun flare, Georgia Tech has begun the second half of the ACC schedule 1-1 and convinced that brighter days are ahead.

Sure, the schedule itself — which will include tonight’s game at Wake Forest, Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech, and games against Clemson, Maryland, at Boston College and vs. Wake — has something to do with the optimism.

North Carolina, Duke, Florida State and Virginia — clearly the league’s quality quartet — are over and done with. The Yellow Jackets won’t play them prior to the ACC Tournament.

Every one of Tech’s remaining opponents is in the back half of the standings, with a combined record of 18-45 in league play (counting Wake twice).

The teams that Tech has played and won’t meet again are a combined 40-20 in ACC action.

So there’s that.

Just as importantly, head coach Brian Gregory said the Jackets have improved enough that they have a right to believe that they can compete with a shot at winning in each remaining game.

That can be a significant psychological advantage, especially when the goal is foremost to move forward whether winning or not.

Unable to meet with Gregory and the Jackets Tuesday before practice (footnote #1), we’ll tilt here to some of what the coach said on Monday’s ACC coaches teleconference.

In short, psychology has at times been anything but long on optimism. Positive reinforcement is in tight supply.

“I think that is always the challenge when you are rebuilding because, rebuilding in and of itself signals that you are going to have to go through some tough times,” he said. “What you hope is the guys are going to understand that even though they are doing some things different and doing some things better, it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Or, there can be positive reinforcement without winning — at least at this point in the development of Gregory’s program.

Sometimes, that comes down to coaches offering more verbal hosannas than they would for similar achievements in a season where expectations are higher.

Just as Gregory has said several times that the Jackets don’t have much margin for error this season when on the court, his team’s collective psyche is not set up to handle as much, uh, constructive criticism as it will be — hopefully — in future seasons.

Or, the Jackets are delicate. They are short enough on the roster that the wrong player landing in foul trouble can have a more calamitous effect. Ditto the potential impact of injuries, or in Tech’s present case, sophomore Nate Hicks’ mononucleosis.

The fact that Hicks is not counted upon to score a lot, nor even rebound like a mad man, masks his value.

He can be solid on defense, and more importantly his availability affords Gregory the chance to spell starters Daniel Miller and Kammeon Holsey either for sake of fitness or foul problems

Without Hicks, the Jackets have to play small, period, in situations where either Miller or Holsey has to come out.

The absence of Tech’s tallest players works as an example of how short the Jackets are all the way around.

“Every little thing can throw you off, and you just need to have the guys stay focused on the task at hand,” Gregory said. “It takes individual toughness to keep grinding it out every day knowing that the payoff is going to be down the road as opposed to right now.

“That is difficult, especially nowadays with the instant gratification society we live in . . . that is when you have to rely on the character of the guys and keep them positive by showing them ways that they are improving.”

Tech (11-14, 2-9 ACC) and Wake (11-14, 3-7) are analogous, and not only in the standings.

They’ve spent time waving metaphorical road-side flares while searching, too, for sun flares.

In each other tonight, they see potential light, but this doesn’t mean that happy days are suddenly here again.

Looking for validation in the process rather than the results is counter-intuitive to our species. But it’s a must right now.

“To be honest, it is not a great point to start from . . . sometimes success on the court is the last step,” Gregory said. “You have to get all of the other things in place before maybe you have the breakout year. I think the one thing is that in this league, you better make sure you don’t skip any of those steps.”

#1: I was buying a car Tuesday for the first time in many, many years, and my wife and I took quite a while to work our magic. Plus, the paperwork took forever.

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