If the record doesn’t indicate that Georgia Tech is under new management, two bits of data did. Entering Thursday’s game against Virginia, the Jackets ranked 21st among 338 Division I teams in field-goal percentage defense and 29th in rebounding margin. And that told us … what?
That Georgia Tech, without benefit of top-shelf talent, is paying attention to the grunt work — namely, defense and rebounding — and also that Brian Gregory, in his first season as coach, has gotten his players’ attention. He arrived insisting his teams would guard and rebound, and sure enough …
Here we note the difference from, say, last season. The 2010-2011 Jackets ranked 222nd nationally in field-goal percentage defense, 145th in rebounding margin. Which is why Tech needed a man like Gregory to right a program gone egregiously wrong.
Which isn’t, let’s emphasize, to say that Tech is fully righted.
The Jackets managed 17 points Thursday in the first half against Virginia at Philips Arena, the bigger of Tech’s rental-homes-for-the-season. The Cavaliers more than doubled that. Over nine galling minutes they scored on 11 consecutive possessions. (Hey, nobody said defending is easy.)
And then, astonishingly enough, it got worse. Tech was outscored 35-21 in the second half, leaving the final count at 70-38. For mavens of minutiae, Virginia banked its 39th point 67 seconds into the second half, which means the Cavaliers could have gone scoreless the final 18:53 and still won.
The 38 points marked Tech’s lowest output since 1982, Bobby Cremins’ first season, and it was accomplished, if that’s the word, on a night when the Jackets made only six turnovers. “We shot it before we turned it over,” Gregory would say afterward, actually managing to smile.
Thirty-four times in 48 tries, Tech shot it and missed. In its third season under Tony Bennett, Virginia has mastered the many nuances of the Pack Line defense Tony’s dad Dick used to numbing effect at Wisconsin. (The Pack Line incorporates man-to-man and zone principles, the effect being that it seems everybody is being double-teamed all the time.)
In sum, the 15th-ranked Cavaliers looked like a well-coached team that knows exactly what its coach demands. Tech, to no one’s great surprise, isn’t nearly there yet. Tech made eight first-half baskets to Virginia’s 15 and spent 30 seconds of every possession trying to find a decent shot, trying and failing. The Jackets were also outrebounded 45-22 on the night, which means somebody’s going to run some steps.
Gregory called the rebounding, or the lack of same, “abysmal,” and noted his players “weren’t guarding a soul” early. He also said: “Our margin of error is very small.”
Even for a team in flux, it was as bad a game as can be imagined. That said, it was possible to look on these two squads and wonder if, two years hence, Tech mightn’t be the better bunch. Tony Bennett’s teams, like his father’s before him, play a halting style. Big-time recruits enjoy expressing themselves freely and often. If Tech can find enough big-name recruits willing to believe in BG, as Gregory is known, good things can happen here fairly soon.
Toward that end, early returns have been promising. Tech’s signing class is ranked 15th nationally by Rivals.com, and big man Robert Carter of Shiloh is listed as the 28th-best player of this class. Small forward Stacey Poole, who’s transferring from Kentucky, has already enrolled at Tech and will be eligible for the second semester next season. Poole was rated No. 33 in the class of 2010. Meaning: The Jackets in January 2013 will be assured of having at least two players better than anybody on this defoliated roster.
That’s a thought that should keep Tech fans warm through what is becoming a chilly winter. These Jackets had a nice December moment by beating Georgia in Athens, something BG’s predecessor never did, but then they lost at Fordham and to Mercer at Gwinnett, which didn’t augur well for ACC play. An honorable loss to Duke followed by an 11-point victory over North Carolina State in Raleigh offered another sliver of hope, but State is coached by Mark Gottfried, who learned under Jim Harrick, who never cared one whit for defense.
For Tech, Thursday’s wipeout loss in a borrowed arena was the worst night of the season, and surely more drubbings await. (It has to play North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Jan. 29. Yikes.) But we knew that’s how this necessary changeover would be — difficult at best, painful at worst. This was always going to be the season Tech had to endure for the sake of better seasons down the road.
“As we forward as a program, our ability to maintain and sustain the way you want to play is going to be important,” Gregory said. “Unfortunately, in the position we’re in, there are going to be nights like these.”
If you look hard, there are times when you can see progress being made. Thursday night wasn’t such a time. Thursday was a night to avert your eyes and count the days until Carter and Poole are eligible.
By Mark Bradley