Georgia Tech is in need of a different sort of rebound

In his fourth Georgia Tech season, Bobby Cremins led the Yellow Jackets to a share of the ACC regular-season title, the ACC tournament crown and the East Regional final against No. 1 Georgetown. In his fourth Tech season, Paul Hewitt led the Jackets to the NCAA Championship game against UConn. In his fourth Tech season, Brian Gregory has led the Jackets to 10-11 overall and 1-8 in ACC play.

“We’ve just got to keep fighting,” Gregory said Saturday, speaking after his Jackets were beaten at the overtime buzzer in a game that was harder to lose than to win. “We’ve got to keep doing what we do.”

That last bit, alas, is the problem. Gregory arrived at Tech promising to rebuild the program around the basics espoused by his mentor Tom Izzo — defense and, even above defense, rebounding. In that, Gregory has succeeded: The Jackets rebound as well as any mid-sized team you’ll ever see. This success, such as it is, has enabled Tech to claim a share of last place in a 15-team league.

This after 3 1/2 seasons on the job and one contract extension for Gregory, who’s 53-63 at Tech and 18-47 in ACC play. This after three full recruiting classes. Understand: The belief here is that Gregory is a decent enough coach. To his credit, he has gotten his men to play the way he said he would. The Jackets try to guard people. They rebound. They play hard. They’re just terrible at putting the ball in the basket, which remains the name of the ol’ game.

Tech entered the weekend ranked next-to-last among ACC teams in scoring and assists and last in field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Again, we note that this is a 15-team conference. Again, we note that this is Gregory’s fourth season, not his first. In Year 1, the Jackets failed to break 40 points in three games. Nine days ago, they couldn’t break 30 at Virginia.

The Jackets lost to North Carolina State 81-80 on Saturday. “We were fortunate,” said State coach Mark Gottfried, who saw Trevor Lacey make a 25-footer to win after Tech’s Quinton Stephens missed what would have been clinching free throws with 4.9 seconds remaining.

Here’s how fortunate State was: Over the final 4:17 of regulation and the first 3:48 of overtime, the Wolfpack managed one defensive rebound. (The one was off a missed free throw.) Over that eight-minute span, the Jackets took nine offensive rebounds. Tech’s best play — really its only play — was to have Marcus Georges-Hunt drive and shoot, and if he missed, no big deal. The Jackets would rebound, and if the putback missed, they’d rebound that, too.

“Unbelievably frustrating,” said Gottfried, whose team was outrebounded 30-13 after halftime.

So let’s give Gregory credit: His team nearly won on a day when it made only 39.7 percent of its shots because it brought its strength to bear. But “nearly won” stands as the story of Tech’s season. Seven of Tech’s eight ACC losses have been hairbreadth things — exactly the kind of losses that, with a bit more offensive finesse, wouldn’t have been losses.

“We’re not at the stage to make some of those plays yet,” Gregory said, but whose fault is that? Who recruited these players? Who installed this offense? Dayton fans were grumbling toward the end of Gregory’s tenure there that his teams didn’t score enough, and Tech fans have gotten the drift.

About Lacey’s winner, Gregory said: “It wasn’t like it was a designed play.” And it wasn’t, though there was a purpose to it. Gottfried wanted Lacey to take the shot, same as he took the flying 40-footer that missed at the end of regulation.

Watch the replay. Lacey signals for the ball in the backcourt. No Jacket makes a real effort to slow Lacey’s progress until he’s 25 feet away, which is within range. Travis Jorgenson and Josh Heath raise their arms, but leave the ACC’s fourth-best 3-point shooter with a clean look in the open court with the game on the line. If it wasn’t terrible defense, neither was it good enough.

It would be wrong to say that Gottfried outcoached Gregory over those final 4.9 seconds. If an 83.3 percent free-throw shooter makes a pair, State loses. Instead Lacey made a shot and stole a game. Lots of teams steal games against Tech because lots of teams are better — heck, nearly every team is better — at putting the ball in the basket.

Is that apt to change in Year 5? Maybe if the Jackets land Jaylen Brown, the ballyhooed forward from Wheeler who’s considered the nation’s second-best recruit and who’s considering Tech. (He’s also considering Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Michigan.) If Brown signs with the Jackets and stays only a season, he might galvanize a program in need of galvanizing. If not … well, there’s always that rebounding.

“In the big picture, progress has been really good,” Gregory said, which leads us to ask: If last place is progress, what might failure be?