March 29, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
With his team’s season a couple weeks in the rear view and all ACC teams having completed play, Brian Gregory has not stopped thinking about Georgia Tech basketball past or future.
The Yellow Jackets were improved in Gregory’s third season as head coach – he believes – even as some outsiders might look at a 16-17 overall mark and a 6-12 ACC record as not being much different than 16-15 and 6-12 a season earlier.
To suggest that the Jackets were not better in 2013-14 from last season, though, would require a dunderhead.
The additions to the ACC of Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame alone made the schedule tougher, and the Jackets went 2-2 against those squads with a win at then-No. 7 Syracuse the high-water point of an injury-plagued season.
That the Jackets beat the Orange 67-62 in the Carrier Dome March 4 only raised a few hard questions for which there cannot be any concrete answers.
Since that game was to that point the healthiest that the Jackets had been in ACC play (or would become), and it kicked off a three-game ACC winning streak, it’s only natural to ask:
How much more competitive might the Jackets have been if sophomore forward Robert Carter had been healthy all season instead of missing the first 10 games of ACC play with a knee injury?
What if senior guard Trae Golden had not yanked that groin muscle Feb. 1 in a win at Wake Forest to render him short-legged for the rest of the season and beyond?
He’s on doctor-ordered shutdown even now.
While it is reasonable for fans and observers to be disappointed in the Jackets’ final record, the only folks who would look at the body of work and not attach an asterisk of plausible explanations to it would land in a corner wearing pointy hats.
Tech was 3-7 in ACC play without Carter, averaging 63.9 points while allowing 69.6, grabbing 32.1 rebounds while giving up 33.2, shooting 32.7 percent.
The Jackets were 3-5 in ACC action with Carter (4-6 counting ACC tournament games).
Overall with him in the lineup, Tech was 13-10, averaging 67.9 points and allowing 65.6, and shooting 43.2 percent.
Some of that is misleading because it incorporates weaker parts of the schedule.
This is not misleading: in the final six games, Carter averaged 16.7 points and 8.5 rebounds, or a tick behind the numbers of Duke power forward Jabari Parker. Golden averaged 13.8 points with 21 assists and three turnovers.
That’s quality work.
The difference between the Jackets when they had a healthy Carter at the end of the season, he was back in a groove, and Golden was mostly healthy were obvious.
This is when Tech won at Syracuse, at home against Virginia Tech, against Boston College in the ACC tournament and then fell in overtime to Clemson to end the season.
It wasn’t just that Tech’s two leading scorers and leading rebounder were back in action. The Jackets also benefitted at that time from the fact that some other players had grown in their earlier absences; freshmen Corey Heyward and Quinton Stephens were pressed into duty ahead of schedule.
“We played our best basketball at the end of the year, when we got a little more healthy, but also because those guys improved during that time [when Carter and Golden were out],” Gregory said.
Given these realities, how might the Jackets have turned out if freshman point guard Travis Jorgenson had not gone down for the season’s count upon tearing an anterior cruciate knee ligament in the season’s fourth game?
Gregory said he anticipated Jorgenson playing 20 or more minutes per game, likely as Tech’s leading ball handler. That would’ve afforded Golden more time away from the ball, spared the scorer considerable wear and tear.
And that plan to pick up the tempo this season?
What if senior swingman Jason Morris had not been limited to just nine games and four starts by foot injuries?
Would Tech have been different if senior post man Kammeon Holsey didn’t spent the final three-plus weeks of the season playing – but not practicing – on a knee rendered arthritic and clankety?
Were it not for Jorgenson’s injury, and guard Solomon Poole’s insubordination – he was dismissed from the program in early January – the Jackets’ would’ve better been able to not only implement the newfangled tempo, but actually drawn a bead on it so as to analyze whether it worked.
“Because of those situations this year, we were not able to truly establish our defensive and offensive identity,” Gregory said. “That’s unfortunate. We were much better offensively this year than last. You can’t say this is exactly what Georgia Tech is going to do because we had to make a lot of adjustments.
“I will say that of all the aspects of our game I was disappointed in our defense. Some of that could be due to manpower.”
As it is, Tech’s offensive metrics were up almost across the board.
Trying to read whether Gregory’s goal of picking up the offensive pace was a good idea or not is impossible because as the injuries (and dismissal) came, the coach found himself playing poker with less than a full deck.
How might a poker player evaluate his philosophy if he were playing with a 39-card deck?
“It was hard, especially that aspect; losing Travis really hurt us,” Gregory said. “I don’t think [the injuries] hinders the evaluation of the individuals who were able to play, but if you watch a DVD of the Georgia game [with Jorgenson/Poole], we played at a much different pace than in the games that followed.”
Losing senior bigs Daniel Miller and Holsey to graduation will not help.
So, the good news?
Carter figures to return for at least one more season on The Flats, perhaps two. Incoming center/forward Ben Lammers (6-10) is versatile, and if bounces back from injury may be able to help the Jackets as a freshman.
Ralph Sampson’s son, Robert, has been solid in practice while red-shirting after his transfer from East Carolina. The 6-9 forward was just kind of getting by in the weight until Papa – an Phoenix Suns assistant – swung through town, and stopped to ask Tech officials how his boy was doing.
Maybe Robert was marking time, but he hasn’t been marking time since because dad stuck a size 22 or whatever where the son (sun) don’t shine.
“I think there was a significant increase there,” Gregory said. “It was not that he wasn’t working, but [now he is taking] even greater advantage of this where [he] can take a year off and change [his] body. It will be interesting because he blocked as many shots in practice as Daniel Miller.
“That doesn’t mean he’s going to the same in a game … but he’s brings a lot of energy. He’s an extremely explosive athlete who has a really good skills package, and he got better and bigger and stronger this year. I think he and Robert really could pose some matchup problems.
“Then you add Q, and Marcus [Georges-Hunt] and Travis and you could be, other than the point guard – who’s a Smurf – you could be big and long at a lot of spots.”
And in the backcourt, where Golden is moving on, greater depth nonetheless may be on the horizon.
Jorgenson is expected to be in the mix to start next season. Tadric Jackson, a guard from Tift County who headlines the Jackets’ recruiting class, will compete immediately for substantial playing time with Jorgenson, Heyward and Chris Bolden.
“I think the minutes that Corey Heyward played are going to help us down the road,” Gregory said. “I didn’t ever envision him playing 25 minutes a game. I think the minutes that Quentin Stephens played will help us.”
More post-season wrap-up to follow this week.
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