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#STINGDAILY: Ready for More

July 20, 2013

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– Without even looking at past RPI results or attendance numbers, Georgia Tech men’s basketball fans can tell you that the non-ACC schedule may have been soft in recent years.

That’s changing.

Head coach Brian Gregory, weaned under a coach notorious for playing tough (Michigan State’s Tom Izzo), believes his program is ready for more. New athletic director Mike Bobinski agrees.

More competition. More chances to prove that his team is improving. More chances to earn credit in the eyes of those who select the NCAA Tournament field. And more chances to sell tickets.

The fact that Tech’s new athletic director is a past chairman of the NCAA Tournament selection committee has played a role in this; Bobinski has chimed in.

With the ACC’s addition of basketball-strong Syracuse (CBSSports.com RPI of 14 at the end of the last season), Notre Dame (35) and Pitt (44), the Jackets add heft to their schedule.

Gregory, Bobinski, associate athletics director Ryan Bamford and basketball director of operations Chris Jacobs are taking this a few steps further.

Home games against Illinois (RPI of 40) and Dayton (114), road games at Charlotte (68), Vanderbilt (108) and Georgia (140) and neutral-site contests against two of three among Ole Miss (47), St. Johns (94) and Penn State (186) – in the Barclays Classic – should pump up the Yellow Jackets’ profile.

“Scheduling has changed. We have two less non-conference games (as the ACC now plays 18),” Gregory said. “What you want to do is make sure there is still a good portion of non-conference games that are going to build your strength of schedule and RPI . . . and prepare you for league play as well.”

Part of this evolving mindset has to do with the fact that the Jackets, entering Gregory’s third season at the helm, plan to be more competitive. They consider making the NCAA Tournament a realistic goal.

The other part is business: selling tickets. That will become more obvious next season, when Vandy, Charlotte, Georgia and another high-end opponent or two to be determined visit McCamish Pavilion.

Bamford, who is tasked with helping build many program schedules within the Athletic Association, has been keenly involved.

He, Gregory and Jacobs consulted Bobinski, who recently finished serving as chairman of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Predecessor Dan Radakovich took a lesser role in basketball scheduling.

“Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame – and adding Lousville next year – that obviously gives us a really solid RPI base so you can look at other things a bit differently,” Bamford said. “From a program standpoint, Brian has introduced two of his own recruiting classes.

“As we’ve turned over the roster our fans will continue to see us build our schedule. Mike [Bobinski’s] got some really good knowledge of what it takes to build a tournament team. We took advantage of his knowledge. It’s good for us competitively, and what it does as a [potential] tournament team is it starts to build our resume.”

Building a resume for the NCAA Tournament is not as easy as scheduling as many top-tier opponents as possible. There would be a heightened risk of sustaining too many losses to make the tourney. It might wear a team out in November and December – before the ACC season begins. And the ACC is shaping up to be a death march in hoops.

“It’s good to get (non-conference) brands, like a Kansas, but we have so many in our league,” Bamford said. “I don’t think we’ll ever play three or four in a season.”

Yet when a program is not established as a blue blood, bringing on top-notch opponents is more important. That’s were Tech is: ascending and seeking to climb faster.

“Absolutely,” Bamford said. “One thing you’ll learn is that Brian is not one to shy away from a challenge. Now, we’ve got our work built in with an 18-game ACC schedule. You know that after the new year, it’s a marathon. You want to challenge yourself in the non-league schedule because you want to prepare. There are different philosphies.

“Syracuse typically doesn’t leave New York in November and December (for an away game); they might get a couple opponents on a neutral floor where Michigan State is the opposite. They’ll play anyone anywhere. We want to find a happy medium.”

With four of five starters from last year’s team returning and only one player from last season’s primary playing rotation having moved on, the Jackets feel ascendant.

A program like Syracuse, which under 36th year head coach Jim Boeheim can boast of making the NCAA Tournament five straight years and in 13 of the past 16, can afford – at least financially – to be more conservative in scheduling.

The Jackets have made the NCAAs just once in the past five years.

Basketball scheduling is done more on a year-by-year basis than in football (which will continue trending away from many long-term arrangements as conference realignment, etc., scuttles deals). It is easier to look from within at one’s prospects and schedule out of conference accordingly.

As Bamford said, “Brian’s first year (2011-12), he needed to learn life in the ACC is and what the rigor of that is.”

Gregory knows now: it’s tough. Yet he’s confident that through recruiting and the establishment of a new culture within the program, the Jackets are ready to step up.

“There’s a line of thinking that because the ACC plays 18 . . . you only have to play a couple good non-conference games. At this point, as a program, we want to play more,” he said. “When you add all those teams up, you’ve got a pretty good body of work. You’ve shown that you’re willing to play.”

Tech this season has just three opponents with an RPI of 300 or lower, and two of them – Kennesaw State (341) and Presbyterian (340) – were scheduled before Gregory was hired. The other will be Mississippi Valley State (344).

Last season, the Jackets played five such opponents.

The Jackets this season also will play five non-ACC opponents from “BCS” conferences compared with three last season.

All of this goes with conference powers Duke (1; home and away), Notre Dame (35, home and away), Miami (4, home), North Carolina (17, home), Pitt (44, home), N.C. State (33, away), Syracuse (14, away) and more.

Bamford said. “There are three components to building a schedule: buy games (against lesser lights), games against non-ACC, BCS teams where you meet home and home or in a tournament at neutral sites, and your league games.

“We don’t want to play a bunch of buy games. We want to give our fans not only a great ACC schedule, but really a good non-conference schedule that from a sales approach will be a positive and appealing full schedule.”

That home slate includes games against Duke, North Carolina, Miami, Notre Dame, Georgia, Clemson, Pitt, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Illinois and Dayton.

Tech will play 11 games against nine teams that made the NCAAs last season – Duke (2), North Carolina, Miami, Notre Dame (2), Pitt, N.C. State, Syracuse, Illinois and possibly Ole Miss depending upon how the Barclays schedule pans out.

So, times are changing, and that will continue.

The Jackets will travel to Vandy this season, and the Commodores will come to Atlanta next season. Don’t be surprised to see Tech play non-conference opponents somewhat, er, like itself. Vandy’s the academic power of the SEC albeit a year removed from basketball glory.

“Vanderbilt is a school in every sport that we should try to play, and I think Mike believes this,” Bamford said. “We align ourselves to recruit against them.

“It’s an easy travel not only for the team, but our fans. They’re in a bigger market, competing with professional teams. There are a lot of similarities.”

Since Kennesaw State and Presbyterian were already on the books, the Jackets were somewhat limited in building their non-conference home schedule. They will have more flexibility next season to improve the schedule even more in McCamish.

“Your singles [non-home and home games], you want to make sure you’re playing teams that are going to have good seasons,” Gregory said. “There is a science to it. I’m cognizant of [ticket sales]. I know how important that is. We’re never going to be a team that is going to play 10 games at home are aren’t recognizable.”

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