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#STINGDAILY: Hitting the Ground Running

Oct. 11, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– For all the flush chatter about Georgia Tech’s new basketball arena – and it says here that not a single bit of the fuss about McCamish Pavilion is hyperbole – the Yellow Jackets feel very good about today’s first practice for reasons that go beyond window dressing.

Last year was a mess. The Jackets were 11-20 overall and 4-12 in the ACC, and none of that was a fluke. Yet these guys believe they are equipped to purge their memories.

As Brian Gregory kicks off his second season as head coach, he and the Jackets are looking forward to dramatic improvement not only in their surroundings but in what they expect to happen when they play in McCamish and everywhere else.

Here’s why:

A.) All five starters are back. As junior post man Kammeon Holsey said simply, “I feel like we’re smarter,” with a year in Gregory’s system.

B.) Beyond this uncommon degree of familiarity and the energy generated by a new place, Tech has not just new faces but enough of a talent infusion to pick up the pace.

Summary reasons for the upside vibe: better competition, depth, and … vibe.

“I’m a senior, and …this is the closest I’ve been to my teammates since I’ve been here,” Udofia said. “When the freshmen came in, we wanted to work them right away because we know we’re going to need them. Everybody started jelling and meshing.

“You just feel like everything has been washed away. I tell the guys, ‘It’s a new era of Georgia Tech basketball. We have the chance to make changes. New locker room, new lounge, new arena, you get to wash all that other stuff off and focus on the new.'”

There is plenty of that.

Rivals ranked Tech’s recruiting class No. 14 in the nation, and 6-foot-8 post man Robert Carter was ranked the No. 21 recruit overall in the nation by ESPN. Forward Marcus Georges-Hunt (No. 59) and guard Chris Bolden (107) were, like Carter, All-State players in Georgia.

Point guard Corey Heyward will miss the season with a knee injury, but 6-4 guard Stacey Poole, Jr. – a transfer from Kentucky – will become eligible to play Dec. 17.

Gregory said there is no guarantee that the last season-ending starting lineup – guards Udofia and Brandon Reed, forwards Jason Morris and Holsey and center Daniel Miller – will be the season-beginning quintet. That’s not a bad sign.

Quickly, the most outwardly obvious good sign – there will be no more busing to Gwinnett or Philips Arena for “home” games. Talk about a huge move for peace of collective minds . . . That’s McCamish Pavilion.

“Last year … I downplayed not having a home court and all that,” Gregory said. “I simply did not want our guys to look at that as a negative. That was difficult. It was hard, maybe even more so than I originally expected. That’s changed.

“That’s going to be important, but not nearly as important in the fact that our returning guys have a year of understanding what’s important now in this program and what’s important now on a daily basis.”

To better grasp why the Jackets figure to be better, consider why they struggled.

Tech was poor offensively largely because they lacked identity on that side of the ball. They were not consistently dangerous in the post, they were not a good shooting team, and they rarely played transition ball for fear of fumbling.

So, they rarely scored well in any of three easy ways: on fast breaks, in the post, or at the free-throw line.

The Jackets were 313th in the nation out of 338 Division I teams in scoring (60.2 points per game), 203rd in shooting percentage (42.7), 259th in 3-point shooting (31.2 percent), and 281st in free-throw percentage (65.4).

Bolden (6-4) is a sharpshooter, Carter has an uncommonly keen shot for a big man, Georges-Hunt (6-5) is no slouch and Poole will add to that.

More important than all this may be the fact that the Jackets will be better passing to set each other up for better shots because it would hard to be worse. Their average of 11 assists per game was 298th in the nation.

Add the fact that Tech’s 14.5 turnovers per game left the Jackets with a -3.3 turnover margin that ranked 313 and it’s easy to see why ball security and sharing will be Jobs 1 & 2 this fall.

“One of the things that we did a poor job on last year was creating shots for each other, that mentality of taking great pride in getting someone a basket and hitting the next open man,” Gregory said. “We have to do a better job in taking care of the ball and a better job of creating shots.

“I think we’ll shoot better if we have the mentality of looking to get someone else a basket.”

The Jackets kept scores down most of the time last year (their scoring defense ranked No. 59 at 62.6 points per game, and their field goal defense ranked No. 35 at 40.3 percent) by hanging onto the ball so long too long only to turn it over too often.

A six-minute stretch in the loss to Miami in the ACC Tournament encapsulated all of Tech’s issues.

The Jackets led 20-19 at halftime, and 27-24 on a pair of Reed free throws with 14:25 left in the game.

Then, the Hurricanes went on a 15-0 run to put it away.

Miami hit back-to-back 3-pointers sandwiched around a Tech turnover, and the Jackets turned it over four other times in that span of 5:59. Three of those turnovers led directly to barely-contested layups.

To summarize, Tech was pretty good when able to set its defense, but the transition defense was far too frequently needed. And too often when called upon, it failed.

The Jackets are going to want to push out their defense a little, too, because opponents hit 34.7 percent of their 3-pointers last year (No. 194) as the Jackets frequently packed it in or gave up far too many transition treys.

“You watch film, and it’s our bad offense that led to offense on the other end, or our bad shots,” Morris said. “This year, we’ve got more ready bodies and people in tune with what we want to do.”

What Gregory wants is to push and pressure the ball a little more with the goal of taking care of it and winning a lot more. There are more athletes with which to try all of this.

“Coach definitely has been preaching, he always talks about pace, pace, picking it up,” Reed said. “We have more depth so that enables us to go harder. If guys need breaks, we have guys who can come in and fill that role.”

Holsey’s athleticism in the post became apparent late last season, and fellow forward Julian Royal brings a shooter’s touch off the bench. Miller’s defense and rebounding have stood out, and Gregory expects more back-to-the-basket offense from him now.

Even with added athleticism on the wings, the ball is going to go through the bigs.

“You win with high-percentage shots, and how do you get those high percentage shots? You get them in transition,” the coach said. “The best way to score in the post is in the open court, and we’ve got to do a good job with our guys running.

“All four of our big guys can run. I think we’re still evolving when it comes to that … we shoot better when we go inside first.”

Speaking of firsts, these freshmen have been around longer than you think.

Gregory’s first recruiting class has been paying close attention since last winter to what the Jackets want to do on the court. They began showing up in the spring for informal workouts with their future teammates.

More talent is a good thing. Knowledge will help make the most of it.

“Definitely because … we can take the thinking part out of it and everything is getting closer to instinct,” Morris said. “Now we can fine-tune. We’ve definitely been focusing on getting out and pushing it, trying to keep a faster tempo.

“The problem last year was when you’d speed up the game sometimes it got out of hand. Guys who sped up wouldn’t know where to go, we’d have more mental lapses. This year, I feel like we’re going to be able to maintain that pace with focus to match it.”

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