March 19, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
With his second run as Georgia Tech’s coach in the rear view, but just barely so as to remain large as life in the back window, Brian Gregory was in a mood Tuesday to talk about the 2012-’13 season before it begins to shrink away.
The Yellow Jackets’ postseason was brief, and their 84-64 loss to Boston College last Thursday in the opening game of the ACC tournament was a most disheartening way to end a season – it was the most disheartening performance of the season.
Signs of progress, however, were more plentiful this winter than in years.
Tech’s three leading scorers in ACC play – Marcus Georges-Hunt, Robert Carter Jr., and Chris Bolden – were freshmen, and those starters and junior center and leading rebounder Daniel Miller – a member of the All-ACC defensive team – will return. The same goes for the top two scorers off the bench, juniors Kam Holsey and Brandon Reed.
The Jackets improved from 11-20 to 16-15 overall, and from 4-12 in the ACC to 6-12. Tech won three ACC road games, the season’s peak came in the form of a 71-69 victory at Miami on Georges-Hunt’s buzzer-beating tip-in on March 6. And the Bulldogs were set down for a second straight year – the first time that’s happened since 1992-’94.
It is becoming clear that a plan is in place – although even Gregory will admit that the Jackets’ offensive approach requires attention and upgrading — and players appear to understand what is being asked of them.
Yet they did not always execute, and not for lack of ability. A problem with fleeting “toughness” was too often a problem. The Jackets need to be tougher.
And there you have offseason priority No. 1, which we’ll get to after a bit of housekeeping.
With news Tuesday that sophomore swing man Julian Royal is going to transfer, Gregory and his staff are back on the recruiting trail. The head coach has every intention of recruiting another scholarship player, although the pickings are quite slim this time of year among high school prospects who will be eligible next fall.
That increases the chance that the Jackets will take a transfer, perhaps even a student-athlete who has or will graduate soon elsewhere with a year of eligibility remaining, or a high school player who signed elsewhere last fall but may be released from his letter of intent if the coach who recruited him has been fired or taken another job.
The priority, Gregory said, “is the best player available,” even if that young man has to sit out a year after a traditional transfer.
Now, back to the business of continuing Tech’s rebuild from within.
The Jackets had a habit of losing their grip on games they controlled, or battling to within sniffing distance of an opponent only to let go of the proverbial rope. It was most obvious once each at home, on the road and at a neutral site – against North Carolina, at Virginia, and against BC in the ACC Tournament.
The last example was most egregious. The Jackets led Boston College 15-0 and more importantly 28-14 before the Eagles scored 70 points in the game’s final 27 or so minutes.
Gregory tried to make defensive adjustments as BC freshman Olivier Hanlan went off on the way to scoring 41 points, but they didn’t take hold. The result was a mess whose effect was to snowball as Tech players became discouraged and abandoned the effort.
“I think right now the focus goes back a little bit onto the recruiting side . . . but in addition to that . . . do a little more self assessment of where you’re at right now,” Gregory said. “Do some analysis in terms of some statistical stuff . . . and also kind of get an outside-looking-in in terms of where we’re at right now.
“What have been some things where we’ve made significant progress, what are some areas that need to be addressed immediately? . . . What do we want to get done in the four weeks we have with [players] once they come back from spring break?”
Yours truly ventured a guess at this point that Gregory planned to beat the “toughness drum” loudly for the forseeable future.
“You have to streamline in terms of those one or two things that are going to be those important points of emphasis from now until next season. You can’t take a shotgun approach,” Gregory said. “That [toughness] is a big one for us . . . We’re at a much better point than two years ago, and even this time last year.
“But that’s going to be a big key for us so that now you have to construct your workouts, your weights, your conditioning, your meetings all with that as one of your key components.”
So how to define toughness? It goes beyond a player’s ability to play through injury, or contact within a game. It’s not merely a physical construct in this instance; it’s a deeper concept that it goes through individual players and all the way to shared approach.
“That’s why there’s a whole book written about it by [Jay] Bilas, because there’s not one simple, clean definition. It has a lot of components,” the coach said. “There’s the physical toughness . . . it can be demonstrated by diving for loose balls, taking charges, being physical on the glass, being able to play with some injuries or whatever.
“There’s the mental component where you don’t get rattled. Where when another team goes on a run that you don’t panic and start doing stuff out of what you’re capable of doing. There’s the mental toughness that you need to have to get your workouts in and get great practice in when you don’t feel like it.
“When it’s all said and done, if you’re looking for a clean definition, it’s doing things you don’t like to do with great energy and effort because it’s usually those things that you don’t like to do that are the most important.”
The Jackets are fairly fresh off extreme examples of both what Gregory is looking for, and what’s he’d like to avoid as if it were a pox.
“We did a tremendous job on Wednesday night at Miami . . . down eight, down 10, down 13, we never, ever deviated. We were sticking to it, and positive. Guys didn’t get out of themselves and just hung around and stuck with it,” he said. “Then, within a week, we go exactly the other way [against B.C.].
“Some of that is maturity. Some of that is not enough experience going through it and ending up with a positive result. That’s where distractions can occur from within every bit as much as from without.”
Gregory has gone a long, long way to reducing distractions from within the program, be they academic issues or behavioral problems or petty personality conflicts.
He and his staff have not yet completely installed in players the highly refined skill of shutting out distractions and staying on task when said distractions rise and become loud. On a few occasions in games, the Jackets did it. On several others, they did not.
Part of this process (within the bigger process of rebuilding) is re-conditioning the Jackets’ collective mindset. In short, fellas, believe!
“We’ve added an additional piece . . . you can’t expect bad things to happen,” Gregory said. “We showed an inconsistency there, and that’s the highs and lows of the rebuilding process.”
So, coming up as soon as the Jackets get back to work in a few weeks, a cross section of work in addition to basketball skills that will throw adversity in the Jackets’ faces individually and in team settings. Some of this will be in the weight room, some will be in conditioning, some will be on the court. There may be video involved.
Perhaps we’ll dive deeper into this once it begins in a couple weeks.
The Jackets had better start preparing to take a dive. Gregory is going to take them deep.
“What you hope is that shared suffering builds some of that togetherness and toughness,” he said. “Also, having a mature outlook and a realistic outlook on exactly what you need to do to be successful.
“Everybody is talented and so if that’s your first fallback to everything, you’re going to be in trouble. That’s a mindset that you’re constantly fighting.”
In sum, the Jackets better get ready to work for everything they’re going to get – same as in games next season.
Gregory had much more to say in looking back at the season. We’ll dive in at least one more time later this week, perhaps as many as three, with additional stories about the conversation. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.