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Royal Flush

Dec. 20, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Julian Royal was more comfortable in the brief time I spoke with him Tuesday than in prior conversations, and that fit perfectly with the fact that in Monday night’s game he looked more at ease than he had previously as a collegian.

Glen Rice, Jr. turned in a double-double in Georgia Tech’s 65-54 win over Alabama A&M, but the Yellow Jackets might’ve been victims of a royal upset if not for the arrival of Royal.

Rice had 21 points and 10 rebounds, and Mfon Udofia bounced back from a dreadful first half to score all 16 of his points in the second. Daniel Miller grabbed eight of his nine rebounds after intermission, too, but Royal was the story.

He was good for 10 points and seven rebounds, which might look good but not great. Yet his work was an outlier against previous evidence. In the Jackets’ previous nine games, he combined for 11 points and seven rebounds.

Royal was timely, too, coming up big in the first half as the Bulldogs (2-5) were driving Tech nuts. The Jackets couldn’t hang onto the ball, or shoot it straight when they did.

Tech turned the ball over on four of its first six possessions, and trailed 10-5 about eight minutes into the game. Rice then scored his team’s next six points, but the Jackets still trailed – until Royal showed up.

He replaced Kammeon Holsey, who did not score Monday and turned the ball over three times, and quickly hit jumpers on three of Tech’s next four possessions. The first one tied the game, and the second gave the Jackets a lead they never lost.

“[It was] maybe the only bright spot for me,” said Tech head coach Brian Gregory. “I’m not sure he stabilized us; he saved our butts.”

I had asked the question about whether the Jackets’ only freshman had stabilized his team because, well, there was nothing stable about the way Tech was playing offense before Royal entered the game.

Udofia had five turnovers in the first half, when Tech had 11, and the Jackets combined for two assists in 20 minutes – both by Jason Morris.

Royal, though, took the wind out of the Bulldogs’ sails. This happened after he found his wind. Upon turning up at Tech as the Jackets’ only recruited freshman, he was in lousy shape. New strength and conditioning coach Mike Bewley went to work, and Royal presented a project.

“In the first game I ran up the court maybe three times, and I felt like my whole body was about to cramp,” Royal said. “I had never felt that before.”

It didn’t show up in the box score. Royal scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds, but those numbers were misleading because a lot of his work came in garbage time against an over-matched Florida A&M squad to open the season.

Royal played double-digit minutes in just three of Tech’s next nine games, and didn’t play at all against Northwestern. He failed to score in five of the eight games he played in that span, and made just 3-of-16 shots.

Alabama A&M was probably slightly less over-matched, but the Bulldogs’ pressure pestered Tech into speeding up, and nothing was in sync in the first half.

Except Royal.

He pitched in six points and five rebounds in that first half, and looked like he belonged. Rice saw it coming, sort of, in recent practices. As Royal’s fitness improved, his confidence grew, and so did his game.

“The last week or so he’s been practicing the best he ever has,” Rice said, “and it translated into the game.”

The 6-foot-8 Royal has game. You may see more of it now that he’s fit although it’s impossible to be sure of anything with a team in such transition.

Tech turned the ball over 22 times Monday, and that’s been a persistent problem. The Jackets have struggled at the point guard position (Udofia and Pierre Walker combined for one assist and eight turnovers Monday), and Kenny Anderson is not coming back to school to finish out his eligibility.

Holsey and fellow starter Brandon Reed scuffled tremendously against AAMU, and whether it was all part of the Jackets’ long-standing tradition of going zombie in their first game after the long fall exams break (nine days between games in this case) or not, there will likely be more bubbles in the line.

Thursday’s game against Mercer, which will be the last played at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, will offer a stern, stern test. Mercer is good, and point guard Langston Hall of Chamblee is going to be a problem.

The fact that Royal and others have flashed potential offers cause for cautious optimism. Tech appears to have several players capable of playing well. There is, however, the very persnickety matter of doing it day in and day out and of knitting together the best efforts of all rather than one or two.

As Gregory said, “The best compliment you can receive in our program is that you’re dependable, that we know what you’re going to give every night and so do your teammates . . . and that’s built with daily practices.”

Royal sounded Tuesday like he’s figured that out.

“You have to practice hard every day,” he said. “When I got here, there were a lot of mistakes . . . but I’ve just continued to get better.”

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