Nov. 16, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
It terms of degree of difficulty, Georgia Tech’s season opener rated high on Friday night because the Yellow Jackets faced off against a more developed foe than is normal for a kickoff game, and there is so much that is new around here.
In an 80-73 win over Georgia that kicked off a wonderful weekend on The Flats, head coach Brian Gregory’s fourth squad banked its fourth straight win over the Bulldogs and suggested that the journey of integrating seven new scholarship players might not travel such a rocky road.
There are questions still to be answered, but there was no denying that two very pleasant surprises popped up right away as sophomore swing man Quinton Stephens scored a career-high 22 points on 6-for-8 3-point shooting, and forward Charles Mitchell scored a career-high 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting.
Stephens had a lightning-quick release on those long balls, and Mitchell – who averaged 6.0 points in two seasons at Maryland – turned in a heck of a Karl Malone impression while also grabbing a game-high nine rebounds in 27 minutes.
He flashed skills with his back to the basket, and popped a jumper, too.
“[Stephens] is a good shooter. We got him open shots, and I said that Quinton has a really good feel for finding open spots to get those shots,” Gregory said after Stephens finished racing back and forth and all around the court to find said openings. “I said he’s got a chance to be a pretty good player, and he showed a glimpse.
“[Mitchell] is a passionate, energetic player and I like those guys . . . he’s got good feel for the game. I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player . . . I think you need to challenge him every day to become really serious about being a great player and I think he can be.”
About new looks
By immediately playing Georgia – which returns four of its five leading scorers from a team that improved steadily last season to go 20-12 – rather than, say, Elon, Gregory and his staff jump-started the process of reading their roster.
One question was addressed quickly, and throughout.
On the game’s first possession, Demarco Cox, who came to Tech after graduating from Ole Miss, recovered from the foul line to blunt Georgia’s Marcus Thornton shot from the right low block.
By sliding his 6-foot-8, 276-pound body into position, Cox made the shot difficult for Thornton, who missed. Stephens rebounded for Tech, and the Jackets were off. Tech soon scored first on a nifty 5-foot turnaround jumper by Mitchell.
There would be a lot more of all this, and while Cox and Mitchell arrived advertised as burly rebounders, neither brought a big offensive reputation.
Cox averaged 3.0 points and 2.8 rebounds over his Ole Miss career, although Gregory must have seen something he liked when Cox scored a career-high 15 against the Jackets last fall.
He scored 10 against Georgia, and while he may not frequently find himself the focal point of the Tech offense, he clearly has the power to score often off of offensive rebounds.
Miller led the ACC last season with 51 blocked shots in conference game and 80 overall and was the second leading shot blocker in Tech history over his career with 286. He also averaged 10.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in 2013-’14.
Cox did not block that shot, but he swatted four others and disrupted many. The same was true of the 6-8, 270-pound Mitchell, who had one block while re-routing several Georgia shooters himself.
Cox and Mitchell are each about three inches shorter than Miller, and neither has the offensive skill set of Carter nor the athleticism of Holsey.
But geez, are they big.
By Friday’s examples, they’re going to be plenty physical at both ends of the floor and their extra wide bodies are going to clog the defensive middle frequently.
Miller and Carter were adept rebounders, and the Jackets have multiple ways to mimic their work.
Mitchell (nine), Cox (eight) and Sampson (eight) were the game’s first-, second- and third-leading rebounders in 27, 28 and 19 minutes.
Mitchell and Cox look like bullies.
“Me and DeMarco always talk . . . we want to be the best big men in the ACC; let’s be the best rebounders in the ACC,” Mitchell said. “We’re new to this team so that’s our goal . . . let’s go out and bang every night.”
The leaner and longer Sampson (6-8, 224 pounds) is a space rebounder, often crashing the glass as a shot goes up rather than being stationed near it in the first place more like Mitchell and Cox. The same is true of Stephens (five rebounds) and swingman Marcus Georges-Hunt (four).
If Gregory chooses to run more on offense, he is likely to sub out either Cox or Mitchell, and sub in Sampson in the front court.
Stephens also at times might work deeper in the front court rather than at small forward, with Georges-Hunt moving from shooting guard to the swing spot.
Junior Chris Bolden and freshman Tadric Jackson also are going to work at the shooting guard spot. Bolden made a 3-pointer Friday. Jackson missed all four of his shots, and did not look comfortable in his first college action. He made all four of his free throws, however.
The Jackets are especially flexible at the shooting guard, small forward and “power” forward spots, and Cox, Mitchell and freshman Ben Lammers (a dunk and a rebound in five minutes) can work at center.
Keep up the pace
After leading by as many as 16 in the first half and taking a 10-point lead (42-32) to halftime after Georgia’s Nemanja Djurisic made a 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Jackets let off the gas a bit in the second half.
To their credit, the Jackets turned back several Georgia threats but several trends were worrisome.
After out-rebounding the Bulldogs by 10 in the first half, Tech fell short by five in the second half.
Tech rebounded eight of its 17 misses shots in the first half, and scored eight points off those extended possessions. In the second half, Tech grabbed seven of its 18 missed shots and scored but three second-chance points.
The Jackets also scored just one fastbreak basket in the second half after scoring eight points that way in the first half.
Georgia was far more disciplined in the second half than the first, when they attempted 16 3-point shots (making four), and seemed fairly intimated by Cox and Mitchell.
The Bulldogs tried just four treys in the second half, making one, and picked up 24 points in the paint – including 12 fast-break points.
This was less a reflection of Cox and Mitchell than it was the Bulldogs pushing pace and beating the Jackets off the dribble more frequently.
Plus, Georgia’s leading player, Kenny Gaines, warmed up and scored nine of his 11 points in the second half. He has barely practiced for the Bulldogs recently while battling mononucleosis.
Bolden (1-for-3) was the only Jacket other than Stephens to make a 3-point shot, as everybody else went 0-for-8.
Sampson (0-for-2) is reputed to have that arrow in his quiver, and Jackson (0-for-3). Georges-Hunt did not try one, and point guards Travis Jorgenson and Heath combined to miss three.
So the jury is out on long ballers other than Stephens, who as a freshman shot 37.7 percent from afar (15-for-48).
He even banked one in Friday, from an awkward angle right in front of the Tech bench.
“I guess it was one of those nights things were falling for me, and my teammates were getting me open,” Stephens said. “I had the opportunity so I just took it.”
Mitchell had another thought, saying, “He was praying.”
With that, came a big grin at the end of a night and beginning of a weekend that left Tech fans smiling from the basketball court to the football field and back to the basketball court as the Tech women beat Morgan State to move to 2-0.