Nothing is easy when it comes to basketball inside the ACC, a point that’s been underscored with the addition of Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh for this season, and the impending arrival of Louisville next season. That expansion has added even more urgency to Brian Gregory’s already tight self-imposed timetable to get Georgia Tech back into the hunt within the ACC.
The Yellow Jackets haven’t won an ACC regular-season championship since 1996, and haven’t won a tournament title since ’93 (although the Jackets reached the final game in 2010, coincidentally the last time they qualified for postseason play). Gregory brings a career .607 winning percentage (199-129) into the 2013-’14 season, including his eight years at Dayton, and has only gone as many as three straight seasons without postseason play one time (2004-’05 through 2006-’07 with the Flyers). He responded by reeling off seasons of 23, 27, 25 and 22 wins, reaching one NCAA Tournament and three NITs, and winning it in 2010.
He is determined not to match that three-season stretch, preferring to go right into the 20-win seasons as he embarks on year three in Atlanta.
Gregory preaches defense. Last season, Tech was 15-5 when holding teams to fewer than 70 points and 1-10 when allowing 70 or more. He’s also big on rebounding: Tech was 13-6 when even or outrebounding opponents and 4-8 when outrebounded. The coach’s tactics are working. Gregory’s Jackets made a five-win improvement last season (16-11, 6-12, ninth in ACC) over his first year on “The Flats” (11-20, 4-12, 11th) and his Yellow Jackets are off to a good start in '13-14, starting 5-1 heading into Thanksgiving weekend's Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y.
With four starters and the top five scorers in conference play returning, as well as a pair of talented freshmen (one, point guard Travis Jorgensen was recently lost for the year to a knee injury) and key transfer Trae Golden from Tennessee, the future is not only bright—it’s here. Georgia Tech will participate in next year’s Old Spice Classic, another opportunity for Gregory to mold his team. He recently met the media in Atlanta and talked about his outlook for the 2013-’14 season.
Q: This is your 10th season as a head coach. How have you changed?
GREGORY: You constantly have to adjust. You need to give [players] the opportunity to utilize all their talents. When you’re a young coach, you want to have control over everything. That’s a learning opportunity and a teaching opportunity. If you just do all restricted drills you may look good but you’ve got to be able to make plays, read situations and make good decisions at game-speed. We do a lot more of that. Also, I watch practice on film once. Back in the day, man, I’d watch that three, four times and be up all night. You grow up a little bit. You mature in terms of just understanding players. Their excitement level, their freshness, is every bit as important as if you add a new play that you think will work. I’d rather have two better players at the end of the year that are fresh and are excited about still playing in terms of their improvement during the year than having two new plays in. That’s been a big change in the way that I approach things.
Q: How big of an advantage is it to return four starters?
GREGORY: Mfon Udofia manned the point the last two years and logged so many minutes, but we have all four starters back at every other spot in [sophomore guard] Chris Bolden, [sophomore forwards] Marcus Georges-Hunt, Robert Carter, Jr. and [redshirt senior center] Daniel Miller. We also have our sixth starter in [redshirt senior forward] Kam Holsey, who played starter minutes and had the impact of a starter. But [point guard] is a big question mark. We’re going to play multiple guards. In this league, if you don’t have quality guards, you’re in deep trouble. So hopefully you’re going to see those guys progressing to the point that you are playing those multiple guards together and the offense is much more efficient and the defense is able to create some more offense for us.
Q: Where do you want the team to improve most from last season?
GREGORY: It starts with our defense. As good as we were defensively last year, we can take a big step this year. We are really emphasizing guarding the basketball. College basketball has become so much more of a dribble-drive game and ball-screen game that the better you guard the basketball individually, the better your team defense is. We’ve spent a lot of time on that and on rebounding the ball. We have to do those two things well. That sets us up to become better offensively. Playing faster and scoring easier baskets, that’s what we need to get. And how do you do that? You get those in transition, and that means pushing the ball on both makes and misses.
Q: What do you see from your experienced frontcourt?
GREGORY: We have veteran bigs that have done a good job. I’m counting Robert [Carter Jr.] as a veteran now since he played so many minutes as a freshman, and then obviously our two seniors in Kam [Holsey] and Daniel [Miller]. All three of those guys are in the best shape of their lives. They’re the strongest that they’ve ever been. So hopefully they’re guys that will anchor both our offense and defense.
Q: What are you looking for out of ACC All-Freshman forward Robert Carter, Jr.?
GREGORY: Robert and Marcus [Georges-Hunt] were two freshmen that were invited to USA Basketball. So they got an idea in terms of evaluation of where they are with some live competition. In terms of scoring on the post, [Robert] is much more explosive. In fact he’s stronger than he was when he was 25 pounds heavier. He’s moving better. He can score from the perimeter and put the ball on the floor. For a kid his size, he has a good skill package. Hopefully, it will really help on the defense and the fact that we are going to play at a faster pace with him running the court.
Q: Who are some of the new faces you’re counting on this season?
GREGORY: Quinton Stephens’ versatility is going to be important for us. He can play multiple positions, and he has great length. He’s also added about 12 pounds, which was not easy to do. He needs to continue to gain strength. He is highly skilled and can shoot the ball. I see him playing both on the perimeter and as a stretch post player because of his ability to shoot. He’s got a great basketball IQ, and he’s a kid who will do anything you ask of him. He has a couple broken noses to show for it. He will be playing with a mask similar to the one that [Chicago Bulls guard] Rip Hamilton wore.
Q: Do you believe that the ACC is the most competitive conference in the nation, with the addition of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame?
GREGORY: It’s off the charts is what it is. You add those three teams this year, who are year in and year out top 25 teams, and then you get a break the next year and you add the national champion [Louisville]. With these 18 games you better be ready. We are doing things to prepare for that night-in, night-out competition. There’s no question that this is the most competitive league in the country. Hopefully what it will do is at the end of the year if you are good enough to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, you are prepared to make a run in that NCAA Tournament. You’re going to see a team take eighth, ninth or 10th place in our league and make it to the Elite Eight, Final Four or maybe even win the national championship.
Q: Your team will participate in next year’s Old Spice Classic. Are your players looking forward to the exposure on ESPN?
GREGORY: Anytime you can play those games or multiple games on National TV, but it’s who you’re playing as well. You’d love to get all those teams to play at home but in the reality of scheduling that’s not going to happen. You’re going to get maybe one or two quality home-and-homes because teams just aren’t willing, really, to play on the road. But they are willing to play in these neutral-site games, where maybe it’s a destination spot. Orlando is always great. So I think there are a lot of positives with it.