GT (Georgia Tech) had just beaten BC (Boston College), and BG (Brian Gregory) was in a GM (good mood). His Yellow Jackets had won their first game in three weeks and their second since Christmas, and when you don’t do it often winning comes to seem a very big deal. “You need tangible evidence sometimes,” Gregory said, and Saturday’s modest victory offered a snippet.
Everyone realized this would be a difficult season: A team that went 13-18 and lost two of its three best players (Iman Shumpert and Brian Oliver) would shuttle between arenas under a new coach, and not just any new coach but a temperamental and tactical departure. But knowing what was coming didn’t make being 8-14 less painful.
“It’s hard on the guys,” Gregory said. “I’m cognizant of that. And it’s not just this year [Tech has been losing] — there’s a piling-on effect. And I know I’m a lot different than what they signed up for. Not to say one way is better than the other, but they’re different.”
When a coach inherits a team and the team loses a lot, we look for signs of surrender. Have guys stopped listening? Stopped caring? On Saturday the Jackets didn’t always play well but they did play hard. They didn’t appear, as was the case in the latter days of Paul Hewitt, a collection of talented players who weren’t sure what to do; this was a team of more modest gifts trying — not always succeeding, but trying — to act like a team.
In those moments when attention to detail slipped, Gregory offered tutorials. He yanked Glen Rice Jr. for neglecting to block out. (Gregory: “A shot goes up and he’s at halfcourt — that’s unacceptable.”) After Boston College scored on a fast break and then on a drive, he called timeout. (”Just a friendly reminder,” he said, smiling.)
Then: “There are some things that are non-negotiable in this program. If you don’t do them … ”
It has been intriguing to watch Gregory’s handling of Rice. On the one hand, he’s Tech’s most talented player. On the other, he’ll try shots even Glen Rice Sr. — an NCAA champ at Michigan and an NBA player of long standing — couldn’t have hit. (Said Boston College coach Steve Donahue, surely thinking of Rice: “They took some difficult shots.”)
The younger Rice was suspended for Tech’s first three games (team violation), and Gregory has deployed him more in reserve than as a starter. If you were looking for someone who fits the profile of BG’s Type of Player — tough, selfless, steeped in fundamentals — Rice would not be first on the list. But …
BG is also a born-in-Chicago-and-schooled-under-Tom-Izzo pragmatist. At the end against BC he had Rice on the floor because Rice, for all his excesses, can make plays no other Jacket can. Sure enough, he made the game’s biggest. A missed Rice runner became a Rice putback with 47 seconds left. The guy who’d been pulled for not rebounding got the rebound that mattered.
Gregory: “We see different things that kind of symbolize that we’re making strides.”
Beating a bad Boston College team was in itself no great achievement — even in its weakened state, Tech is better than BC — but it put the Jackets in position to make a little noise this next month. Of their final seven regular-season games, only one will be against a team that ranks in the ACC’s upper half. (And that one is North Carolina State, which Tech has already beaten.)
As dark as this season has been, there’s a chance Tech could finish 6-10 in the ACC. That might not sound like much, but it’s better than the Jackets did a year ago.
“We want to end the year on a positive note and get some good momentum,” Gregory said. “We want to lay the foundation, and when you build a house you don’t start with a new roof or nice windows. You have to dig in the dirt.”
In Tech’s case, that’s not just a metaphor. The Jackets’ arena is under reconstruction. Next season they’ll again have a home of their own. They’ll also have better players, and they’ll have a coach who knows his business. It hasn’t always been easy to see, but there’s tangible evidence that this program is going to be OK.
By Mark Bradley