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#TGW: Holiday Cheer

Nov. 27, 2014

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

– Georgia Tech men’s basketball has a lot to be thankful for at Thanksgiving.

They’re 3-0 for the third straight season under Brian Gregory. They’ve already knocked off rival Georgia to move to 4-0 under B.G. (which has come to stand for “Beats Georgia.”)

They’ll be participating in an early-season tournament, for the third time in four years — this time the Orlando Classic.

Things are good, but while Gregory is in a festive mood, he’ll also be keeping a close eye on his team as it takes the floor of HP Field house at around 8:30 p.m. Thursday evening to take on the Golden Eagles of Marquette (the game can be seen on ESPN2).

“You have a four-day snapshot of where you are at that particular time,” Gregory said. “Did you improve during the tournament? Did you continue to play better? We have the opportunity to open up with Marquette, who over the last 10 years, has been as successful as probably any program in the country. They’ve been a perennial top-20 team. Then you turn around and who you face in the second round and who you face in the third round.

“So on a neutral court, it really puts you in difficult situations,” he added. “You have quick turnarounds. You really have to concentrate on the key things in each game because you don’t have a lot of prep time. It’s good for our guys and it’s good for us as coaches to try to figure out the best ways to put our guys in position to be successful.”

So far to this point there have been a lot of positives. Georgia Tech has had different guys step up in all three games. They have four different players averaging better than 12.0 points per game, interestingly, not one of them named Marcus Georges-Hunt (Quinton Stephens, 14.0 ppg, Charles Mitchell and Demarco Cox, 12.7 ppg — Hunt is next at 10.7).

They’ve relentlessly pounded the glass on both ends of the floor, behind Mitchell (27 boards, 15 on the offensive end, both team highs), a healthy Robert Sampson (20, including a team-leading 14 on the defensive end) and Cox and Stephens (18 each). Then there is the outstanding point play of youngsters Josh Heath (18 assists vs. 1 turnover) and Travis Jorgensen, Heath a sophomore, Jorgensen a redshirt freshman.

Gregory is eager to see if the team can continue to do what it does well against a higher caliber of competition than it’s seen.

“We look at our core values of what we need to do to be successful. We have to rebound the ball, we have to force low-percentage shots, and we have to have really good assist-to-turnover ratio. We have to take care of the ball,” he said. “Those three things, if you concentrate and do well in those areas, throughout the year you’re going to continue to improve.”

The Jackets have improved because they’ve been better than their opponents in those areas. They’re plus-13.7 in rebounds, are holding opponents to 40.9 percent shooting (29.7 from three-point range), and are plus-one in turnover margin.

Tech expects to be tested in Orlando and is looking forward to the challenge.

“I’m very excited,” said Sampson. “Big-competition teams off the first game and from then on. It’s very competitive. We all look forward to it.”

“It would be really nice if we can come back next week and say we’ve gotten all we could out of it. Come back 3-0, that would be awesome,” said Heath. “Go through some adversity, see how we come out of it and see how we respond if things don’t go our way, like it has been.”

The first potential adversity comes when Tech takes on Marquette. The Golden Eagles are 2-2, having dropped a tough 74-63 decision at No. 20/20 Ohio State, then came home where they lost to unranked Omaha, 97-89, and barely beat NJIT, 62-57. The Golden Eagles are having to replace three starters, their top four scorers and three of their top four rebounders from last season while learning a new system, under first-year coach Steve Wojciechowski.

Even though Wojciechowski is new to Marquette, the long-time Duke assistant (he was in Durham as a player or coach since 1994) is quite familiar with Georgia Tech.

“We’ve been going against Duke now for three years and he was on the bench,” Gregory said. “So, yeah, there are some advantages. I’m sure he was intimately involved in the preparation at Duke for playing us as well. Even though it’s the fourth game of the year there’s not a lot of secrets out there right now.”

Georgia Tech and Marquette have split their six previous meetings and while Marquette has won the last two meetings, the schools have not met since 1977.

Tech does hold a size advantage, as Marquette has but one player as big as 6-7, while Cox, Mitchell, Stevens and Sampson all stand 6-8 or taller. The Jackets have out-rebounded all three opponents, while Marquette team that has been out-rebounded in all four games this season.

“Let’s hope it continues, because it’s going to be important this weekend and the games that follow,” said Gregory. “We’ve done a good job rebounding defensively, limiting teams to one shot and then, obviously, getting extra possessions with offensive rebounds.”

Gregory would like to see more rebounds from the backcourt, however.

“I’m never satisfied with the guard rebounds,” he said. “We always want the guards to come back and get more because that ignites your fast break even more when you get some of those guard rebounds.”

Should the Jackets get by Marquette there is a potentially intriguing second-round matchup against No. 20/19 Michigan State. Playing such a perennial power is exciting but, for Gregory, is tempered by having to go head-to-head against his mentor, Tom Izzo.

“I’m not even trying to think about that,” he said, with a laugh. “That would be a tough 24 hours emotionally just because of the respect that I have for him.

“I hope we get to play them … in the winner’s bracket,” he added. “But the heartstrings would be pulled a little bit during those 24 hours.”

While Gregory has mixed emotions on that family feud, he likes having the team together in a family setting for the holiday. This Thanksgiving marks the fourth straight that the team is out of Atlanta on Turkey day. They’ve had mixed success, going 1-2 in 2011 in the Charleston Classic, 2-1 at the following year’s DirecTV Classic in Anaheim, Calif., and 0-2 in last year’s Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y.

As usual, the team had a Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday night, where each member got to express the things for which he is thankful. That’s something Gregory insists on.

“I think anytime that you’re able to get away, spend a holiday together, I think that’s really beneficial,” he said. “That will be their traditional Thanksgiving dinner,” he said. “We always make sure our guys get together as a team and everybody verbalizes to the rest of the team what they’re thankful for. I think that’s a good thing. We’re a family, but sometimes, letting people know what you’re thankful for at this time of the year is important.”

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