Dec. 17, 2015
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Finals week is over.
But any sigh of relief for Georgia Tech men’s basketball is short-lived. Walking the academic gauntlet has been just an appetizer compared to daunting gauntlet they face over the next couple of weeks as they wrap up the non-conference portion of the schedule then head into ACC play.
The expression “out of the frying pan and into the fire” comes to mind.
The Yellow Jackets took that leap and on Tuesday night passed their first post-exam test, taking out VCU at McCamish Pavilion, 77-64.
“That is a very, very good team that we just beat tonight,” said coach Brian Gregory. “That’s a team that is going to win a lot of games this year and will challenge for the A10 Championship. No question about it.
“I’m really proud of our guys and the way they played,” he added. “I thought that second half was the best basketball that we’ve played. Defensively we were tremendous. We were great on the glass. Offensively, we moved the ball, we got good shots and we responded when we needed to.”
As tough as VCU was, things don’t get any easier, as on Saturday, the Jackets travel to Athens to take on Georgia. The Bulldogs may be 4-3 (4-2 at Stegeman Coliseum), but are still a rival and you know how rivalry games go.
That’s followed by a three-games-in-eight-days stretch to conclude 2015 against Southeastern Louisiana, then conference leaders in Colgate (4-6, first in Patriot League) and Duquesne (8-2, first in the Atlantic-10). The Jackets then ring in 2016 with a high-noon meeting against current No. 2 North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Jan. 2.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Waaaaaaaay ahead.
“We’re only looking at one game,” said Gregory following Monday afternoon’s practice. “Every day we try to make sure we’re competing and getting better then hopefully what that does is prepare you for [Tuesday] night.”
“I just try to take it a day at a time. You can’t really look ahead,” said senior guard and leading scorer Marcus Georges-Hunt (15.2 ppg). “Just try to win today as Coach BG will tell us. Once we win today that’s all you can do. You’re not promised tomorrow. So winning today is the biggest thing.”
The Jackets tried to win each day of the nine-day finals week hiatus, working on their games and using these last non-conference games as a testing ground.
“This is where you get better, the times when your finals are over and you can just focus on basketball,” said forward Charles Mitchell, who, after Tuesday night averaged 14.2 points (second on the team) and 12.8 rebounds (first) and who continued a streak of nine straight double-doubles. “You get extra time in, extra shots, you work on your body more. It’s one of those things where you can go even harder and just focus on basketball with no school. It’s taking up where you left or getting better from where you left off.”
Georges-Hunt (15.2 ppg) followed a simple formula during finals week.
“Sleep, eat, hoop, then do it all over again,” said Georges-Hunt, who had only one final — he’ll take his final three classes and graduate in the spring. “Really this is a great time for my teammates and me to get even closer. This is a great start to work on things we didn’t do great in the month of November and try to capitalize in December to get ready for conference.”
“It was a slow start,” he said. “At the beginning of the season we were trying to get a feel for each other but as games go on, we learn something new each game, we do something better each game.”
The team is actually right where last season’s was, in fact, last Dec. 15, Gregory’s birthday, the Jackets also won at McCamish Pavilion to move to 7-2. But the feeling is different about this season’s 7-2.
“Oh, yeah. We’re a lot better,” said Gregory. “You’ve heard me say it a hundred times, we’re better, but we have to be better during the 40 minutes that you play, being better and being more cohesive — and that’s not a knock on last year and the year before. It’s just that we’re better. We have more options, we’re more talented, we have greater experience. We have 40 minutes maybe twice a week to prove that and that’s the challenge that we have.
“You look at the numbers,” he added. “You look at practice, you look at the games, you look at plays that we’re able to make that we just hadn’t been able to make before, So you add all those things up.”
“I feel like we have a lot more pieces that can contribute in a lot of different ways,” said Georges-Hunt. “Everybody doesn’t do the same thing. Everybody has something unique that they do or that they bring.”
That was never more evident than during the second-half 7-2 run that extended the lead early in the second half with both Georges-Hunt and Mitchell on the bench.
“I thought the key to the game was our three guys off the bench in Quinton [Stephens], James [White] and Tadric [Jackson],” said Gregory. “They stepped up and they made plays for us and, defensively they were great. Nick [Jacobs] got two or three big deflections on our ball screen coverage.
“Guys are gaining more trust in each other and I’m gaining more trust in them,” he added. “That’s part of the process.”
Mitchell feels the process is being accelerated every day, especially non-game days.
“It’s the effort we give and playing in practice. I think a better approach to practice and then toward the game is different this year,” said Mitchell. “Just the competitiveness of our players. We go into every day, even the players that come in on our gold team to help us out, they play hard every possession. It makes us play hard and makes us better overall, individually and as a team. The harder we play in practice the easier it comes in a game.”
There’s nothing easy coming but this is an experienced team, one that is ready to face whatever adversity comes its way and is better equipped to overcome it than last year’s, which, although valiant, was frequently outgunned.
“The one thing you give last year’s team credit for was other than a couple of games, we were in every game,” Gregory said. “Sometimes we had to come back, but not from big deficits. Let’s hope we don’t have to find that out. Obviously, we can score better, so that aids your ability to come back if you’re down some points.”
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