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Signs of Encouragement

Nov. 4, 2011

Georgia Tech’s practice at the Arena at Gwinnett

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Opening night is less than a week away, and if you were allowed to peek behind the curtains and see what Brian Gregory has been seeing, you might just be a bit surprised.

One need not Google (v: search) for long to find stories selling the Yellow Jackets short, but Georgia Tech’s new basketball coach is nearly in a mood to laugh at what pundits are selling. He likes much of what he’s seen in three weeks of practice. He’s not about to make grandiose predictions, but neither is he moping.

Gregory believes Tech can compete.

After Tech today plays its second controlled preseason scrimmage against a Division I team (the NCAA discourages announcing the opponents for these things), there will be just a few days before the Jackets play Florida A&M for real Friday in the Arena at Gwinnett.

Fine-tuning time has arrived.

Fans wants to know the starting lineup. Gregory is not giving that away, yet it doesn’t take a wizard to start with observations from last year, pair them with answers to questions about practice so far . . . and come to conclusions:

Glen Rice Jr., Daniel Miller and Mfon Udofia seem highly likely to be on the floor when the season tips off, Udofia and transfer Pierre Jordan are going to handle the ball a lot, transfer Brandon Reed (whose name keeps popping up) has been stylin’, and if any of these guys don’t get busy on defense, then they’ll sit.

“Where offense is multiple actions, defense is multiple efforts,” Gregory said Thursday as he gave the Jackets a day off for having practiced five times in the previous three days. “That must be drilled every day. We’ve looked at some things that needed some instant attention.

“Last year . . . [opponents] shot a very high percentage against us so developing a defensive mentality where you have all five guys on the same page . . . that takes some work. It’s not brain surgery by any stretch, and it’s not super intricate, but there must be a commitment.”

So who seems supremely committed to date?

“On defense, I think Mfon has done a really, really good job,” Gregory said of his likely starting point guard. “Sometimes, you can have great stats with steals but hurt your defense more than you help it.

“Mfon has done a very good job of being able to disrupt the other team’s offense without creating a lot of scramble situations behind him, without putting other defenders in trouble. And Brandon has a desire to be a very good defender. He’s got great feet.”

Gregory also mentioned Miller and sophomore big man Nate Hicks in the defensive chatter, but in the interest of full disclosure I must admit he invoked other players who’d made an impression, but our phone connection was schizoid and I didn’t catch all of it. He was on the road recruiting. Time was short so . . .

Backtracking in the conversation to less important matters, who’s going to score? Who’s on track in assimilating the new offense?

Alas, the name of Reed, a 6-foot-3 combo guard who averaged led Arkansas State with a 15.1-point scoring average on the way to being named Sun Belt Freshman of the Year in 2000-’10 before transferring to Tech, came up there as well.

He, Rice, sophomore Jason Morris and Miller were touted by Gregory as offensive pleasantries. “Glen and Big Jake (Miller) – we’re going to have to count on them making some shots for us,” said the Boss.

The Jackets were, frankly, not very straight shooters last season. From what Gregory has seen, he thinks they can improve in that regard, and where Tech hoisted an inordinate number of long balls in ’10-’11 in contrast to shots taken by (freshmen) post players, the coach thinks there will be a wiser ratio this go-round.

“I think we’ll be able to score in the post, and score out of the post. All of our post players are good passers,” he said. “We’ve shot the ball very well from the free throw line, and while I’m not sure we’re a great shooting team if we take high-quality shots . . . “

Julian Royal, the team’s lone freshman, is 6-8 and he’s going to work in the post while roaming on occasion, and Kammeon Holsey will embark upon similar actions a bit closer to the hoop. Senior guards Derek Craig and Nick Foreman will occasionally be asked to sharp shoot and shut down, respectively.

Given a choice, the Jackets would prefer not run a lot of half-court sets.

“If we take a long rebound or a turnover, whoever has the ball is the one that leading the break,” Gregory said. “Pierre and Mfon, when our offense is in the phase of initiating, those two guys are going to be the ones doing it.”

The Jackets have already practiced in the Arena at Gwinnett to become accustomed to it, and after practicing again Sunday they’ll be off Monday. Then, final preparations for Gregory’s first season.

“I’ve been very pleased with the work ethic during practice, and the commitment to effort and energy and attitude,” the coach said. “We always emphasize that to be the team that you want to become, you have to become a quality practice team first. And the first step is getting guys to buy in. I think we have.”

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