March 4, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
Sunday was a reinforcement of sorts, when few, if any, of the impressions about Georgia Tech were challenged and few, if any, new concerns cropped up.
The Yellow Jackets fell 70-57 to NC State in their home finale. In that game, a couple of the most common problems of the season were issues again, and the most reassuring part of the season was again there to offer a reason to be optimistic about the future.
In short, Tech plays hard yet struggles to shoot straight and keep track of the ball.
There have been exceptions to all rules in some games. This, though, is the baseline and in the process of turning around a program that was half naked in the hinterlands that's a big step.
Soon after Brian Gregory was hired, and several times since, the Tech coach said that the most important part of his turnaround plan was teaching the proper work rate.
Tech's improvement at that would rate a B-plus, maybe even an A.
The Jackets (15-13, 5-11) rarely play beautifully, the ball often sticks, and most other teams shoot better. Tech, though, rarely this season has checked out, and the Jackets made themselves a pain in the Wolfpack's side pretty much all the way on Sunday.
NC State (21-8, 10-6) has been playing well, winning five of six, and that team's going to the NCAA tournament.
After falling behind 28-14 in the first half, the Jackets rallied to within 36-33 by halftime, and werewithin a shot early in the second half on a couple occasions. NC State had more seasoned players, more developed talent, and pulled away down the stretch.
Senior Mfon Udofia led the Jackets with nine points and three assists.
“This team has shown great resolve and great fight, and you can’t do that without great senior leadership. Mfon and Pierre [Jordan] have done that,” Gregory said on Senior Day. “Their impact in this program will, unfortunately, be more felt down the road.
“They were part of a cultural change, and they have been the key components of that. They stuck with it when things weren’t great.”
Things still aren't great, but the arrow is pointing up.
NC State out-scored Tech 20-6 off turnovers, and by 12 points at the free throw line. The Jackets out-rebounded the Wolfpack 42-36, and after Richard Howell jumped out to a fantastic start, Tech adjusted and slowed him down. He scored all 18 of his points in the first half, and had six rebounds.
But Tech never really found a way to score consistently. The Jackets shot just 28.6 percent in the second half, and made 1-of-7 3-pointers in that time.
“The key was that we had two or three possessions where we could have tied it to taken a lead and we just weren’t ever able to get over the hump,” Gregory said.
“We struggle taking care of the basketball at times for various reasons . . . One of the hardest things in this process is to be consistent and to constantly build on stuff. I think this season kinds of shows that point. You see good things and you think now you’ve got it, but you don’t. It’s just not who we are yet. It’s who we can be, but it’s not who we are.”
With Udofia and Jordan the only players leaving the program and four of five starters returning next season, Tech's prospects are better than a year or two ago.
The point guard position will be the biggest question in 2013-'14, and while Solomon Poole has benefitted from early playing time in what would normally have been his senior season in high school, he's learning more about what doesn't work than what does. In just four minutes, he had three turnovers and three fouls.
Gregory was not talking about Poole when he said, “It’s kind of where we’re at. You shore up one thing that you know you had to do better, and then another problem opens up. We’re just not at a point where all the pieces on a consistent basis lock in.”