Brian Gregory: Tech needs to be tougher next season

This went mostly unnoticed Saturday, largely because 50-plus losses over three seasons and near-bottom-rung finishes tend to dominate the talking points. But do you realize Brian Gregory just won consecutive ACC games for the first time since arriving at Georgia Tech?

“Yeah, nobody’s talking about that,” Tech’s basketball coach said smiling, moments following his news conference after Saturday’s 62-51 win over Virginia Tech. “But I think our guys realized it.”

So it was a good week for Gregory.

That makes one.

He knows better than to brag. This week has been a little dot of sunshine in a mostly miserable season. Even with the upset of No. 7 Syracuse the other night, followed by a win over the ACC’s worst team four days later — Virginia Tech is 9-21 and down to seven healthy scholarship players — the Yellow Jackets figure to last only a game or two in next week’s conference tournament.

This makes three seasons for Gregory, not nearly enough for a coach to take over a relative train wreck of a program and turn it into an ACC contender. The problem is that this season has to be viewed as nothing less than a missed opportunity, and the concern is there’s little reason to assume much success next year.

The Jackets looked like a potential NCAA tournament team before this season. But two things happened: 1) They suffered some significant injuries, notably to Robert Carter Jr., Trae Golden and Travis Jorgenson; 2) They didn’t handle it well.

The first can’t be controlled. The second can. That falls in Gregory’s lap.

“I’m OK with that,” he said when asked about criticism.

“It’s part of the building process. We need to get to a point where, if we go through some of the stuff we went through this year, we’re tough enough and deep enough to still have a good year. We just weren’t there this year. There were some sleepless nights because of that. You can use some of those rational explanations (for losing) as much as you want. But when you’re good, you have to figure out a way how to tough out some of those wins.”

Tech hasn’t done that nearly enough. Year 3 was supposed to be a season that Gregory could point to and say, “Ah-hah!” But he’s not going to point to 6-12 in ACC play. On most nights, Tech hasn’t been a good basketball team. On many nights, it’s not even average. Gregory noted that the Jackets showed resilience in games against Syracuse, Boston College and Wake Forest, but “We didn’t do that with enough consistency. That’s what really hurt us.”

Which leads to next season. Four months ago, Gregory received a one-year contract extension. His deal now runs through 2017-18 (four more seasons). But even with that financial security, the heat gets turned up a bit next season, and that will happen under difficult circumstances. Gregory loses four senior players, including Daniel Miller and Golden.

This assumes that’s the extent of the damage. Gregory points out that “one out of every three college players transfer.” Also, while the subject of Carter leaving early for the NBA never has come up, I’ve certainly seen worse players go early.

Recruiting? You know how this works. Gregory recruited well at the outset following his hiring, but losing eventually catches up to you when you on knock on doors, particularly in a conference where so many other programs (Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Florida State) have something to talk about. The fact that Solomon Poole, who was expected to be one of Gregory’s top recruits, was thrown off the team last month also doesn’t look good.

None of this was going to matter against Virginia Tech. But we saw the good and the bad of the Jackets. They struggled early, led by seven points at halftime, blew it open to 19 with 10 minutes left, then let Virginia Tech back in it. It was an eight-point game (58-50) with 4:30 remaining until Golden made a 3-pointer to put this one away.

Carter (16 points) and Miller (14 points, nine rebounds) were great. Golden (14 points, eight assists) had his best game since coming back from a knee injury. You can see the talent on the floor. It just hasn’t translated to enough wins this season. Tech will go into the ACC tournament as the 11th seed.

Gregory likes the way his team is playing now, but he knows what ultimately defines success is how teams respond to injuries and adversity, staples of every season.

“The test will be on the court during the 30-some games next year,” he said.

After which, he needs a better record to point to.

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