In hoops opener, Tech looks more ready than Georgia

The opening of college football season in Georgia generally leads to speculation about conference title hopes, bowl games and national implications. The opening of college basketball season in Georgia generally leads to hands covering the eyes … with the occasional intrepid moment and peek between the fingers.

Say this for Georgia Tech. If basketball season openers are about either creating or tempering hopes, the Yellow Jackets did a far better job comforting their fan base than their counterparts Friday night.

Final score: Georgia Tech 80, Georgia 73.

Also this, in head-to-head meetings: Brian Gregory 4, Mark Fox 0.

That might not count for much in March. Gregory beat Fox three times, but was 43-52 in his first three seasons, including 16-36 in the ACC. But in November when not a lot of folks are paying attention to hoops, it will keep Gregory and the Jackets warm at night.

“One night a year, playing in this program takes on a little extra meeting because you’re playing Georgia,” Gregory said. “I never shied away from that. For a year, we get to say, you know, say whatever we want to say, I guess.”

Here’s what Tech can say: All of those new pieces that Gregory is trying put together quickly before the ACC schedule arrives came together nicely. There weren’t a ton of turnovers. Players were under control and shared the ball. The Jackets, who led by as much as 16 points in the first half, certainly had opportunities to put the game away and couldn’t, but given this team was picked to finish 13th of 15 teams in the ACC, this first performance far exceeded expectations.

Here’s what Georgia can say: Bad start. Really bad.

The Dogs looked dreadful in the first half, when they shot way too many 3-pointers (4-for-16) and were 11-for-35 from the floor. They were sloppy. They didn’t work for good shots. Georgia played better in the second half, but still didn’t look like the team that had far more returning players than Tech.

Granted, the Dogs were hurt that one of their two best players, guard Kenny Gaines, didn’t start and clearly was struggling because he’s still trying to work his way into shape after a three-week bout with mononucleosis. But overall, the team’s performance was underwhelming.

Georgia went 12-6 in the SEC last season but failed to make the NCAA tournament because of non-conference performances like this.

“We have a good team,” Fox said. “I’m not going to panic because we lost the game. We just got outplayed.”

Fox might’ve been hamstrung by Gaines’ limitations, but he wasn’t anymore hamstrung than Gregory, who lost Trae Golden and Daniel Miller off last season’s team and then saw the team’s potential best returning player, Robert Carter Jr., transfer to Maryland.

While Carter went to Maryland, the former Terp Charles Mitchell transferred to Tech. For one night anyway, it was a nice trade. Mitchell had an impressive debut with 20 points and nine rebounds, even if, as Gregory joked, “Sometimes he forgets to come back on defense.”

If Tech could play Georgia more than once a season, maybe he wouldn’t be perceived to be lacking in job security. A CBS Sports college basketball writer last week referred to Gregory s as one of 10 coaches on the hot seat. (Interestingly, Fox did not make the list.)

Gregory was dealt a tough hand after the firing of Paul Hewitt, and it certainly didn’t help matters when Carter transferred. But the CBS Sports analysis made a valid point with this: “When you coach at an ACC school, it’s impossible to go four seasons, be below .500 in all of them, not come close to making one NCAA Tournament and manage to keep your job.”

But this was a good start. Maybe Tech will be better than expected.

“We’re going to make some mistakes, but we have good chemistry and a good group of guys,” Gregory said. “When we go through some tough times, that’s when our chemistry will be tested. But I thought overall this was a step in the right direction.”

That’s one more step than Georgia took.

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