Given the most important of metrics – wins and losses – Georgia Tech started the season impressively: 10-2. It was a record so good after a season that was so bad (11-20) that the Yellow Jackets technically could have gone 1-18 the remainder of the season and still not taken a step back from the first one under Brian Gregory.
But what we witnessed Saturday might have provided more clarity about just where Tech sits in this rebuilding process.
In the Jackets’ first ACC game of the season, they were competitive early against Miami (17-17), withered at both ends of the court for the remainder of the first half (outscored 16-6), fell behind by as many as 23 points and eventually lost by a not-so-humiliating 13 (62-49).
“You just have to look at it and say that on Jan. 5, they’re a better team than we are,” Gregory said.
Odds suggest he will be afforded opportunities for similar postgame analysis Jan. 9 against North Carolina State, Jan. 17 against Duke and Jan. 23 against North Carolina, which are three of the next four games. The realistic outlook is the Jackets hope to at least salvage a home win Jan. 12 against Virginia Tech because that’s one of the few ACC teams Tech was projected to finish ahead of before this season began.
Gregory has recruited well. He has won a bunch of early games, which has led to some needed smiles in the fan base. But sometimes in college basketball, early records like 10-2 can give off more warmth and sunshine than reality suggests.
Other than No. 22 Illinois (a 75-62 loss), Tech hadn’t played a tough schedule yet. It was evident in any set of RPI rankings that you wanted to look at before the Miami game.
RealtimeRPI.com had the Jackets ranked 106th Saturday morning, behind the likes of Canisius, South Dakota State, Stonybrook, Wagner, Montana, Florida Gulf Coast and Fairfield (the school, not the budget hotel chain).
Where the Jackets are now is not necessarily where they will be in two weeks or two months. Right now, or at least against Miami, the Jackets couldn’t create on offense like they had in non-conference games, certainly didn’t shoot as well (32.7 percent vs. 44 percent in the first 12 games), were battered on the boards (40-29) and broke down on defense against the bigger and more physical Hurricanes.
It also didn’t help that Miami’s Rion Brown, son of former Tech star Tico Brown, scored 22 points off the bench on 9-of-11 shooting, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range. (It’s all in the timing: Brown entered only 5-for-38 from 3-range).
“We’re just not there yet — to be able to sustain it on the defensive end if things aren’t there on offense,” Gregory said.
Referencing the non-conference schedule and the ACC’s decision to expand from 16 to 18 conference games this season, Gregory added, “We would’ve had two more high quality teams we would’ve played in non-conference [if not for the conference schedule change]. We’re still not as tested as you’d like to be at this time.”
I understand Gregory’s position on the schedule. But playing at least one more tougher non-conference opponent might have prepared the Jackets better for what’s coming early in the ACC — which is, to say, a sledgehammer.
Tech’s strength of schedule before Saturday was ranked 297th. Miami’s was fourth.
The Jackets’ season ultimately will be defined by how well their young talent, particularly freshmen Robert Carter Jr., Marcus Georges-Hunt and Chris Bolden, develops. It follows that how they react to potentially taking some early lumps in the ACC will be telling.
Gregory again: “Like I’ve said before, you don’t put in all the work and all the time to eliminate the tough times, because in this league, they’re coming. We’re hitting on it after the first game.”
Amazing how one game can change the view.
By Jeff Schultz