When I was growing up, I followed every Georgia Tech team as close as a NASCAR driver follows the car in front of him at Daytona. I would go out and call out players’ names as I shot a hopelessly worn out basketball through a net-less hoop that hung over my parent’s drive way. Names like Mark Price, Derek Anderson, Phil Wagner, John Salley, and John Caldwell made their way into dreams thanks to my father’s stories, lifting them to Greek god status in my mind. I desperately wanted to play for the white haired Bobby Cremins, who, being a Gamecock (he went to South Carolina), was held in high esteem at my house. I always claimed the number ten in rec league because of Drew Barry long before I rocked the number for Chipper. I wore my James Forrest #34 jersey so much that the numbers started chipping off. I even wore a white arm band on my right wrist just like Starbury. As I hit high school I would talk anyone’s ear off that would engage in a debate about the best players in college basketball, defending my case for Matt Harpring and Dion Glover. In college I celebrated as Paul Hewitt took his team into Cameron and ended Duke’s 41 game winning streak at home, and cried when their magical NCAA tournament run came to an end in the championship game against the Uconn Huskies. Those were fantastic times to be a Yellow Jacket fan, but they seem further away than the eight years we are removed from them.
A lot of things have gone into the demise of a Georgia Tech basketball program that has two winning season in the past seven years and hasn’t made it past the second round in the NCAA tournament since that magical 2003-2004 season, but up until now, there hasn’t been a reason to think things may be turning around.
The Yellow Jackets (13-10, 3-8) took the court Thursday night against the hated Clemson Tigers (13-11, 5-7) to kick off a stretch of three games in six days. After a dismal start to the ACC schedule, they had won three out of their last five games, including two road wins over Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, and getting out scored by a total of five points in their two losses. Georgia Tech was looking like it was turning it’s season around. Over the past two weeks there had been a lot of talk about Coach Brian Gregory’s young team growing up and maturing, and they were looking to keep improving through the thick of the conference season (there is 1 senior, 4 juniors, 3 sophomores and 6 freshmen on the roster).
The game seemed to get away from the Jackets from the start, as Clemson jumped out to an 8-1 run in the first three and a half minutes. Tech kept them within arms-length, though, through the first half and headed into half time trailing 20-15, which was a far cry from the action packed contest on January 29. Clemson led that game 36-30 at the half, and went on to win by three, 63-60, which just so happens to be the last game they had won coming into the night.
“Our biggest challenge, and has been since league play started, is being able to maintain and sustain a consistent effort and execution at both ends of the court. Unfortunately, we’re at a point right now to do that. When we do put both of those together, a solid defensive effort with good offensive execution, we’re pretty good. When we don’t, like the first half today where our defense was pretty good and our offense wasn’t, it puts us in a deep hole.” – Georgia Tech Basketball Coach Brian Gregory during postgame interview Feb 14.
Tech came out of the locker room playing good basketball, and tied the game at 30 on junior Daniel Miller’s only two points of the game. Clemson was reeling. They were turning the ball over, missing free throws, getting shut down inside, and beat on the boards. They were in need of a spark, which they got in the form of a steal and dunk by KJ McDaniels, who led the Tigers with 14 points. Clemson took off on a 17-5 Clemson, capped by a Milton Jennings three (12 pts 6 reb) just inside the 8 minute mark to give his Tigers a 47-35 lead.
“We just couldn’t guard anybody in the second half. They shot 62 percent. We couldn’t guard them in the post, we couldn’t guard them on the dribble and we couldn’t guard them from the three. As a program that’s the challenge. That’s where we’re at, and we’re making steps, but it’s where we’re at right now. Defense should keep you in the game. As your offense does better things in the second half, you’ve got to win the game still because of your defense.” – Brian Gregory
Earlier in the season, if Georgia Tech had been hit with a run like this it would have gotten ugly. Situations like the one the Jackets faced repeat themselves over a season, and can be a great way to measure the growth of a young team. You look to see how they handle things when the wheels start coming off. As a fan, you hope to they remain calm, and start fighting their way back into the game one posession at a time. This has been a problem area for the young Jackets in the past, but not this time. Kammeon Holsey (9 pts 8 reb) started the climb with 2 free throws, followed by a flurry of plays made by freshman. Swing guard Marcus Georges-Hunt, who led the Yellow Jackets with 11 points, kept it going with a put back, then hit the front end of a pair of free throws. Shooting guard Chris Bolden (9 points) followed that up by connecting from long range, followed by a Georges-hunt jumper, and forward Robert Carter Jr. (10 pts 11 reb) contributed with a tip in to chop the Clemson lead down to four, 51-47, with 3:37 left.
The freshmen continued to battle, with Bolden and Georges-Hunt both tacking on three points each to bring Georgia Tech within two, 55-53, with 34 seconds left. However, that was as close as the Yellow Jackets would get. A missed layup by Bolden with nine seconds left, and a missed three by senior guard Mfon Udofia (6 pts 4 assists) at the buzzer sealed Georgia Tech’s fate, as they dropped yet another close game 56-53.
There is reason, however, to be optimistic as a Yellow Jacket fan. Over the past six games, Tech has outscored their opponents by 27 and improved their field goal and three point percentages, as well as their assists per game, which is a sign that their ball movement is getting better. In fact, since the start of conference play, the three freshmen, Carter Jr., Bolden, and Georges-Hunt, are averaging around 30 minutes and just under 10 points a game. Robert Carter Jr. has shown to be a force with his outside shot as well as with his work on the boards, Bolden has upped his totals across the board, improving in points per game, steals per game (second on the team in ACC play), assists per game, and he is shooting 35% from beyond the arc, and Marcus Georges-Hunt has been improving on the defensive end of the floor while flipping roles between shooting guard and small forward. There is still a long way to go, and nobody knows this more than Gregory.
“At this point I can’t waste time with ‘What ifs?’. What we’ve got to do is practice tomorrow and get better tomorrow and just keep plugging away. That’s the thing about building a program; it isn’t going to be easy. I wish it was. With where we’re at and where we want to get to, it’s going to be hard”. – Brian Gregory
Georgia Tech will look to bounce back in just two short days at Wake Forest (11-13 4-8), followed by a visit from UNC (16-8 6-5) Tuesday night to end their stretch of three games in six days. With games still remaining against Virginia, #3 Miami, Maryland, and NC State, who are all in the top half of the conference, The Yellow Jackets desperately need to grab at least one win in the next five days, pick off a couple of the big boys, and close out the regular season against a struggling Boston College with a win if they want to have just their third winning season since 2004-2005.
Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said the key to building a program was to try not to reinvent the game, and to bring in better players than you’ve already got. With a top 20 recruiting class already under his belt and an early commit for next season from Marist stand out Quinton Stephens, Brian Gregory seems to be doing just that. The days of Georgia Tech’s greatness on the basketball court may seem like ancient history, but if Coach Gregory keeps this team heading in the right direction, those days might not be that far away.