Brian Gregory: Even if it’s not obvious, Tech is progressing

Brian Gregory didn’t envision this as the season Georgia Tech would crash the Final Four. He did, however, believe that his Jackets could be “an 18-to-22-win team,” which would have put Tech around mid-table in the ACC and probably on the NCAA bubble — and which would have constituted undeniable progress.

From 16-15 last season, the Jackets have instead fallen to 13-16. They’re 4-12 in ACC play, tying them with Boston College for 13th place in a 15-team league. With one week remaining in his third season at Tech, Gregory’s teams have gone 40-51 overall, 14-36 in the ACC. That’s worse than the Jackets did — 47-48 and 14-34 — in their final three seasons under Paul Hewitt, whose contract was terminated in March 2011.

On its face, this would not appear to constitute progress. In a 15-minute phone conversation Monday, Gregory declined to describe the season as a failure but allowed this much: “I felt we’d have a better year, but I also didn’t foresee all the things that were going to happen.”

Mostly he meant injuries. Starters Robert Carter Jr. and Trae Golden missed significant time. (Both have since returned, not that it has much mattered. Tech has lost four in a row and six of seven.) Freshman guard Travis Jorgenson tore his ACL in November. Wing Jason Morris has played only nine games due to foot ailments. Guard Solomon Poole, one of Gregory’s highest-rated signees, was dismissed from the squad in February for what were deemed “conduct and accountability issues.”

The upshot: A roster so robust it was capable of upsetting ACC-champ-to-be Miami in Coral Gables last March has been rendered thin. If we go by RPI, Tech’s two best victories were against Georgia (86th) and Illinois (71st), and the most recent of those came Dec. 3. For the past three months, the Jackets have done next to nothing.

Said Gregory: “From the fourth game on, it’s just been a continual situation where you’re losing a guy and getting him back or losing a guy for the rest of the year. … I try to stay away from the word ‘frustrating,’ but it’s been a challenging year.”

Also this: “The margin of error is so small when you’re rebuilding … anything can distort that.”

And this: “There’s no question my hope was to be at a much different spot.”

Had this deflating season arrived after consecutive postseason appearances, it would have been easier to write off as bad luck. But Gregory is about to complete Year 3 having given Tech fans no tangible reason — meaning wins and losses, on which the reputation of every collegiate coach hinges — to believe that he represents a clear upgrade over his predecessor.

That the W’s haven’t come isn’t a sign, Gregory said, that the program is foundering. “You look at some of the improvements we’ve made,” he said. “It’s obvious on academic side. When we came here, we had the lowest APR (academic progress rate) in the league; our first year we had a perfect APR.”

Tech will lose four key seniors, three of whom Gregory inherited. This coach’s first full recruiting class, which yielded Carter and Marcus Georges-Hunt, was ranked the nation’s 16th-best by Rivals. Last season’s crop was much less heralded; this season’s would appear no windfall, either.

Still, Gregory believes the aging process will bear fruit by 2015. “I think with our first recruiting class becoming upperclassmen, our chance to solidify the way we do things and to carry over the success we’ve had underground will become a little more visible.”

Which means: He expects Tech to win more games next season, which wouldn’t be unwelcome in the Gregory household. The coach isn’t in trouble — he signed a six-year contract and received a year’s extension last November — but if four seasons pass without a sniff of the Big Dance, fans and athletic directors tend to notice. (Hewitt had the Jackets in the NCAA field in Year 1 after succeeding Bobby Cremins, who took Tech to the tournament his fourth season on the job.)

Then again, neither Hewitt nor Cremins had to negotiate an ACC that included Syracuse — that’s where the Jackets will play Tuesday night, barely 49 hours after tipping off in Tallahassee — or Pitt or, beginning next season, Louisville. Said Gregory: “The challenge of rebuilding has been made more difficult with the change in our league.”

But if winning at Tech were easy, the job wouldn’t have come open for Gregory to snag. “There’s an old saying,” he said. “‘Trials breed perseverance; perseverance breeds character and character breeds hope.’ That’s what we’re going with.”