Nov. 14, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
With so many new faces and no games yet played to determine their best places, tonight’s season opener will be more a roll of the dice than in most basketball campaigns and not only for sake of Georgia Tech’s roster churn.
Georgia-Georgia Tech will tip at 7 p.m. in McCamish Pavilion, and the Bulldogs will not resemble recent Tech lead-off opponents like Presbyterian, Florida A&M, Winston-Salem State or Elon.
The red & black return four of the five leading scorers from a team that went 20-14, and Georgia will play Tech earlier than ever in the 191st game between the teams. This will be just the seventh Tech-Georgia November match-up.
Tech has seven new scholarship players, a starting point guard who might as well be brand new after barely playing last season, and questions aplenty. The Yellow Jackets are like puzzle pieces dumped on a table, needing to be fit together.
As the only Tech returning starter likely to start tonight and the only one of the Jackets’ five leading scorers still around, Marcus Georges-Hunt isn’t concerned that head coach Brian Gregory hasn’t had time to tinker in games.
He just wants to play.
“To me, it doesn’t matter at all,” the junior guard/forward said of the timing. “It’s one big game you can circle or put a star next to that you’re going to really have to give it your all . . . because this rivalry is really big.
“I don’t think it matters. Coach has prepared us for what’s to come, and he wants it starting in the first game. I never really put any thought into it.”
The Jackets are going to look quite a bit different than when last seen.
Travis Jorgenson is expected to start at point guard after missing all but the first three-plus games last season because of a right knee injury. Georges-Hunt will be beside him in the backcourt, and sophomore Quinton Stephens – who is said to be considerably stronger, if still wiry – will probably be the first swing man.
Newcomers Charles Mitchell, a junior transfer from Maryland, and Ole Miss graduate Demarco Cox are likely to start in the backcourt, although East Carolina transfer Robert Sampson could get the early nod.
That’s a full dozen players in the active queue, if you’re not keeping count, and a few more than most coaches typically play on a regular basis.
Sure, it would be great to have a few games in the bank before playing Georgia so as to winnow the rotation.
Yet the scheduling of this game was made particularly different by conference expansion in the ACC and SEC that has left less wiggle room with non-conference match-ups to collide with other tournament and scheduling obligations that the Jackets and Bulldogs already have.
Much as Gregory would like to have solved his rotation in time to go for Tech’s fourth straight win over the Bulldogs, he’s not there yet even after six weeks of practice. There will be no Presbyterian or Elon to straighten matters out, comforting as that would be for a coach with so many new parts.
“No question about that,” Gregory agreed. “But . . . that’s the way it is. The game’s going to be played so we’ve got to be ready to play because I know Georgia will be ready to play. It’s a growth opportunity.
“There’s a big difference between what you do in practice sometimes and how you perform under the bright lights.”
There will be differences Jacket-to-Jacket.
Jackson might be Tech’s most capable scorer yet his most likely spot will be manned initially by Georges-Hunt, who averaged 11.7 points last season.
Heyward started 15 games last season, partly because of injuries to others, and he’s the Jackets’ top perimeter defender. He’s worked hard to improve his offense, and like Georges-Hunt he’s trimmed and chiseled considerably.
It is not clear if he’s going to be the first point guard off the bench, or the first shooting guard because he’s not a perfect fit in either spot. His defense, however, will get him on the court.
Like Georges-Hunt, whom he joined weeks ago in Greensboro, N.C., to represent Tech at an ACC media gathering, Heyward doesn’t seem to care when the Jackets meet the Bulldogs, nor whether they’ve played someone else first.
“It’s a big start, especially when it’s your rival school and you know there’s a lot at stake,” he said. “Usually, you have a couple games to kind of work your game out, but this year it’s from the jump.
“I think we’re ready for the challenge, and ready to embrace that. I would say maybe 75 percent of my friends from [Peachtree Ridge] High School go to Georgia. For us to get a win last year meant a lot, and to get one would be big.”
The newest Jacket knows the most about the Bulldogs.
Cox, who arrived on The Flats in late summer after graduating from Ole Miss, is familiar with Georgia big men Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic. He knows only by scouting report of new Bulldogs bigs Yante Maten and Osahan Iduwe.
“I can say it’s 50-50 [playing Georgia right away],” said the wide man. “For the first game, it’s going to be really tough, but it will give us an indication of where we need to be. I already know `em since I came from the SEC.
“Marcus Thornton tries to catch it and he wants to finish through your chest. Djurisic is a pick-and-pop [forward], and he can also put it on the floor so you’ve got to play him straight up.”
The more prolific Bulldogs, guards Charles Mann (13.9 points per game) and Kenny Gaines (13.0) are capable of agitation, although Gaines has been limited recently by illness and constitutes something of an unknown.
Likewise, the Jackets’ approach is to be determined.
Do they stay big with Mitchell, Cox and Lammers, or flex in the front court with the more agile Sampson, Stephens and Gueye with Georges-Hunt at the swing?
Will Gregory orient toward offense in the backcourt with Jackson and Bolden, or focus more on slowing Mann and Gaines with Heyward earning more minutes?
The coach said he wants the ball to move with more alacrity than in the past, yet he sure talks a lot about defense and rebounding.
The answers to these questions and more start rolling in tonight.
“Travis, Josh and Corey are dramatically improved [at pushing the pace], but . . . no matter how hard the point guard pushes, if the wings aren’t running it doesn’t do you any good,” Gregory said. “Whenever you have a good rebounding team, you have good rebounding guards.
“Our point guards need to be those gritty guys that rat out every loose ball. It’s an opportunity to play a high-quality team in the first game to get a gauge of where you’re at. After that, there will be a lot of improvements to make one way or another.”