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Winning close games can change Georgia Tech’s fortunes

October 8, 2015 Columns No Comments

Georgia Tech in recent years has been a snake-bit team. Even going back to the Paul Hewitt years, it always seemed like the Yellow Jackets were more than competitive, a team that when they finished down in the ACC standings always lost a bunch of close games to get there. The theory is that those close losses can turn into wins with a more experienced team, but theory doesn’t always follow reality. Brian Gregory and his squad need that more than ever this season.

It’s not as if Georgia Tech has lacked talent. They’ve had enough to win plenty of games, and this year’s team will be no exception, with three starters back led by senior Marcus Georges-Hunt, and six of their top nine scorers from last season. They add Adam Smith, a well-traveled guard who will finish his career at his third school, and who has scored points in the ACC as he was at Virginia Tech before this season.

That means talent won’t be in question this season, either. What will be is whether this team can not just be a year older, but a year better, especially since there are plenty of other teams that return at least three starters in the ACC (only three return fewer than that).

This is a team that finished 14th in the 15-team ACC last season, going 3-15 in conference play. That included a seven-game losing streak at the beginning, from which they never recovered. 12 of those losses as well as their ACC Tournament loss (a 66-65 decision to Boston College) were by a total of 47 points, and they played a very tough schedule in all, so this is not a bad team. But as anyone will tell you, 3-15 is 3-15 whether the losses were by 47 or 470 points. Two of the three non-conference losses were by two and five points, so you notice the theme. But close losses are still losses, and when a team loses that many close games, there appears to be a common them of being just a little short.

The season mirrored the way many games went for the Yellow Jackets, as they started well with a 9-3 mark before their ACC struggles. Similarly, they were a solid first half team, but were outscored in the second half on the season, two trends that were especially pronounced in ACC play. That meant the first half often told the story of this team, as they were just 1-12 when trailing at the half and 1-2 when tied going into the locker room.

Besides Smith, Georgia Tech adds another graduate transfer in James White from UALR and Alabama transfer Nick Jacobs, both of whom will help the frontcourt. That wasn’t a very weak area last season, but it is a place where there has been some change as senior Charles Mitchell and junior Quinton Stephens are the only players with significant experience returning. That means they effectively replaced the departed players, and that unit shouldn’t skip a beat after helping them out-rebound opponents last season.

The Yellow Jackets hope the backcourt settles the way it appeared to by the end of last season, as a pair of sophomores will anchor it. Travis Jorgenson showed promise at the point with the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio among freshmen in the ACC last season, while Tadric Jackson seemed to settle in off the ball and was a starter at season’s end. Smith could displace the latter, or play alongside him in a smaller lineup, after averaging 13.4 points per game last season in Blacksburg. Where Smith especially helps is with shooting, as the Yellow Jackets shot a dreadful 26.7 percent from long range last season, with no individual shooting better than 32.6 percent. He shot nearly 44 percent from deep last season.

For this team, taking another step is important given that they were too often too close last season. There’s plenty of experience, but not necessarily winning experience, so the same cast plus a couple of newcomers won’t automatically get better. For that matter, Smith and Jacobs last played for teams that struggled, with the former being part of the only team to finish behind Georgia Tech in the ACC last season.

To that end, Gregory took them to the Bahamas in August, which gave the team time to bond as well as practice together. The trip also gave them a real taste of playing with the a shorter shot clock, as the three games they played all used a 24-second clock under FIBA rules. Georges-Hunt and Smith sat out the games to protect minor injuries (the former had off-season surgery to repair a fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot), so there was the added benefit of complementary players needing to play bigger roles for a time.

While this season’s non-conference schedule is challenging, it’s a step below last season at first glance. They welcome Tennessee early on as well as Green Bay, who lost their best player, then take on Arkansas and either Stanford or Villanova in New York for the NIT Season Tip-Off. Wofford and VCU visit in December, and they head to Athens to play arch-rival Georgia as well. The ACC is always unforgiving, but it gives them no favors here as three of the first four are on the road, starting with a visit to Chapel Hill to play national title contender North Carolina.

It’s hard to believe that Georgia Tech’s last first division finish in the ACC came over a decade ago – 2004-05, to be exact. That was the first season of expansion from the nine teams the conference had for a long time, up to 11 teams before Boston College joined a year later. This team certainly has a chance to end that long drought, though it’s a steeper hill to climb now than it was the last time they finished that high. That ACC didn’t have Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville.

Gregory was brought in from Dayton in 2011 to reverse that trend and hasn’t done so to this point. He’s not working for the athletic director who hired him, as Mike Bobinski is now in that seat, and he thought long and hard about making a change after last season. Though Bobinski said numbers – Gregory has three years left on his contract and they’re still paying Paul Hewitt through 2019 – didn’t make the decision to bring him back an easy one, you have to think they played a role. The department also has debt from a recent build-up of facilities on campus, including the basketball team’s home in McCamish Pavilion.

There’s no reason to figure Georgia Tech won’t be better than just competitive this year. They should certainly be better than last season, but what that translates into on the bottom line is tough to figure. If they turn some close losses into close wins early on, that could be a sign of better things to come.

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