Oct. 31, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Georgia Tech’s grand unveiling is still two weeks away, but Brian Gregory isn’t waiting for the season opener to hatch plans for the Yellow Jackets.
Roster turnover is an annual reality, yet with seven new scholarship players Tech’s basketball coach is dealing with more than a few moving parts.
It is becoming clear that he’s seeking leadership and impact from returning players and newcomers alike, and he wants the Jackets to muscle up both in their work and their thinking.
Simply, he wants tougher players.
More specifically, to succeed in a rugged conference made more so by the ACC’s addition of Louisville, the coach feels the Jackets will need:
# Meaningful guidance and production from junior swing man Marcus Georges-Hunt on and off the court.
# More aggressive perimeter defense, led by third-year sophomore guard Corey Heyward.
# Points from freshman guard Tadric Jackson.
The wish list goes beyond this. These, though, are primary points for Gregory in his fourth season on The Flats.
Even before next Friday’s exhibition game against Clayton State at McCamish Pavilion and ahead of the official curtains-up meeting with Georgia a week later, on Nov. 14, the coach has laid out a map of sorts.
Earlier this week at ACC’s Operation Basketball media event in Greensboro, Gregory, Georges-Hunt and Heyward – the team’s two returning starters — offered peeks at the Jackets as they seek to improve upon records of 16-17, 6-12 ACC.
First, a foundational concept:
“I think we have an unbelievable opportunity to take another step forward in the rebuilding process,” Gregory said. “An opportunity as our first recruiting class is now juniors, and this is the first year that everybody in the program has been recruited by us, for us to really kind of forge that identity of what this program is all about.”
Georges-Hunt figures to be Tech’s flag bearer.
He averaged 11.7 points and 4.3 rebounds last season as the Jackets’ most multiple player.
Gregory has added to Georges-Hunt the role of leader, and he expects Heyward – a defensive specialist and utility man — to assist regularly.
Each young man has readied by losing about 20 pounds. They’ve added tensile strength.
“Marcus Georges-Hunt every day has to walk around like he knows he’s one of the premier players in this league,” Gregory said. “His assertiveness and aggressiveness have to be at that level . . . Corey at both guard spots adds that physicality and toughness that is so important to me as a coach.”
Words like those keep coming up, and Georges-Hunt said that the newcomers — transfers Cox, Mitchell, Robert Sampson and Josh Heath and freshmen Jackson, Ben Lammers and Abdoulaye Gueye — are embracing organizational philosophies.
“They’ve responded great. They come to me, ask questions. They’re hungry to learn,” he explained. “They’re buying into Coach Gregory’s system.”
Tech won’t have a prototypical shot blocker in the middle, like the graduated Daniel Miller. Mitchell and Cox will stray from the basket a tad more, and likely contest a fair number of shots in weak-side help situations.
Neither was a big scorer previously as Mitchell averaged 6.5 points and 6.3 rebounds for the Terrapins, and the 6-8, 276-pound Cox averaged 4.2 points and 4.9 rebounds for Ole Miss – although he went for a career-high 15 points and 13 rebounds last season against Tech.
Gregory will look for more from his new double-wide bigs.
“The opportunity [is there for] some players like a Marcus, a Demarco Cox, a Charles Mitchell, guys like that, where they have to take a totally different role, a new role, and find a greater purpose,” the coach said.
Sampson will also factor in the post, and from afar.
At 6-8, 220 pounds he’ll bring different building materials to work.
The senior son of UVa legend Ralph Sampson averaged 9.1 points and 9.2 rebounds for East Carolina in 2012-13 before transferring to Tech last year. He shoots the long ball a bit, somewhat like departed transfer forward Robert Carter Jr., and rebounds like mad.
“Rob is doing a great job. He runs the floor extremely well, blocks shots, has a wing span of I don’t know how long,” Heyward said. “You find out when you try to take a 3-point shot and he blocks it when he’s jumping from the block. He dunks it any time he gets it. He can shoot the ball really well.”
Point guard duties figure to be handled largely by Travis Jorgenson, who by all accounts is tracking well in returning from a knee injury that scuttled nearly his entire freshman season. Heath may get a look there, and Heyward will as well.
Where will the Jackets find the points generated by departed guard Trae Golden?
Jackson’s a candidate to fill it up. The 6-2, 215-pound freshman averaged18.9 points for Tift County High last season, leading the Blue Devils to the Georgia AAAAAA state title and landing All-Class Player of the Year honors. He bears a resemblance in body and game to Golden.
“[Former Tech coach Bobby] Cremins always said you’ve got to get guys that can score the basketball, do things that you can’t teach, and that’s exactly what Tadric does,” Gregory said. “He scores in a variety of ways.”
There are more options.
Lammers (6-10, 241) has been a pleasant surprise in preseason practices. The center has a developed basketball IQ, a passing touch and a knack for swatting shots.
Forward Quinton Stephens (6-9, 187) is stronger and packs a long ball.
Shooting guard Chris Bolden (6-3, 223) is looking to rebound from a streaky sophomore season, and Gueye (6-9, 208) has a 7-foot-3 wingspan and plays inside and out akin to Stephens and Sampson.
The coach is more interested in how the Jackets play than who plays. The way they play will determine that, and Georges-Hunt, Heyward, Cox and Mitchell will – at least at the start – lead the way.
“Those four guys need to set the tone and tempo every day for the physicality that we’re going to play with, the toughness that we’re going to play with,” Gregory said. “I always mention the resiliency and resolve you need to play with in this league.”
Heyward sounds the part.
“I see ourselves as . . . a team of guys who want to fight and sacrifice; blue collar, definitely,” he said. “And we have something to prove, especially with the new guys coming in as well have something to prove.”