Nov. 12, 2011
By Jon Cooper
“Changing the culture.”
It may not be the first item on a new coach’s agenda, but is something every coach eventually brings up as a foundation for a long-term plan.
Brian Gregory was no different last March 28, when he took over a Georgia Tech Men’s Basketball program that was mired at the bottom of the ACC.
He’s been on the job a little over six months and has only coached one game that counts, but there’s little doubt that the culture already has undergone a metamorphosis.
The 92-59 dismantling of a Florida A&M team that was too small, working in too many new faces and was basically over-matched against the Yellow Jackets is a nice way to start the season but is hardly significant for a team that wants to be a power in the ACC.
Playing like a team that wants to be a power in the ACC without its leading returning scorer Glen Rice, Jr., who did not play, as he served the first of a three-game suspension issued before the game by Gregory is significant. As is the reason they had to open their season that way.
Gregory made a statement. There is behavior that will not be tolerated and while he didn’t specify on what Rice did, it obviously was enough to warrant suspension for the first two home games and the opener of an important preseason event, the Charleston Classic. But this is not draconian punishment.
“Guys are learning that there are consequences but there is also going to be growth,” said Gregory. “We’re here to help him grow through this and him move on from there.”
Playing without Rice, the young and hungry Yellow Jackets did a lot of other things that Gregory has been preaching from Day One. They attacked the boards — aided by a major height advantage, They also played solid team defense, attacking the perimeter and collapsing in the paint, rattling the Rattlers and forcing them to shoot below 40 percent for the game — around 35 percent in the second half, and slightly over 12 percent from three.
The commitment to defense is an unselfishness that shows they have bought in to Gregory and his system that harps on relentless convergence on the basketball.
“To be honest with you, most guys are more selfish on defense than on offense,” he said. “‘I’ve got my man,’ as [another] guy goes in and shoots a lay-up. You’ve got to break that. That’s a habit. That’s something we work on every single day. You have to put yourself out there and make yourself vulnerable in our defense if you want to be good. That’s hard nowadays to get guys to do that. But when we do that we can become a very good defensive team. Especially if we rebound the ball the way we did tonight.”
The unselfishness is obvious on the offensive end. Skeptics may see the Yellow Jackets’ lack of a No. 1 scorer has led to nobody wanting to take the shot.
Gregory sees it differently.
“It’s something that we stress, making the extra pass, passing up good for great but still being aggressive to make plays, and make shots,” he said. “I think that was a big point of emphasis for us as a team, to build some dependency on each other. To do that, the unselfishness,”
Gregory recalled that his introduction to his idea of making the extra pass was not greeted with enthusiastically.
“Early in practice we showed some clips of guys making extra passes. It wasn’t the excitement that you’d normally see,” he said. “From that day we’ve really changed as a team, offensively, in terms of really feeling good, just as good about making that pass as we do about making the shot.”
“It starts in practice, like coach said,” said point guard Mfon Udofia, who dished out six assists in the opener, while turning the ball over just once. “In practice we’re very unselfish. We need to shoot the ball. We’re passing up an open shot to get it to our next man. I think we’re a real unselfish team.”
There are and will be occasions when the young players will make one pass too many, but are starting to recognize it and learn from it. Explosive forward Jason Morris had such a moment in the first half Friday night, as he aggressively drove to the basket, but instead of finishing threw a kick-out pass that sailed out of bounds for a turnover. He immediately pointed to his head, realizing his error, albeit a well-intended one.
Holding themselves accountable is becoming a behavioral pattern for the team.
But there are still some elements in which Gregory will be holding them even more accountable. Foul shooting is one such area.
The Jackets shot 72 percent for the game (26-for-36), but radically improved in the second half, when they shot 85 percent (17-of-20). That left Gregory openly curious about what happened not only during the first half, when Tech made only 9-of-16, but during the daily free throw shooting drills.
“Every time we shoot, you have to make 80 percent at every basket. It’s amazing how many guys make 80 percent,” he said. “I told my staff at halftime, ‘Those guys must not be telling me the truth when they tell me they hit 80 percent of their free throws.’
“I think we can be a good free throw-shooting team,” he continued. “I don’t know if it’s the arena or not getting used to it or whatever. We’re a good free throw-shooting team when we’re confident at the line and when we have a high level of concentration. Mfon is a perfect example of that. Forget the last play. You have to step up to the line with confidence and concentration and knock them down.”
Rice has become an example and Gregory believes will be one the rest of the way.
“He’s not perfect. So a mistake was made and we need to grow from that,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities. Everybody has different opportunities to grow from different things. I do like the progress, not only him, but Point A to right now, point B, I like the direction — and we’re not close to where we’re going to get to — but I do think we’re moving forward.”