Georgia Tech beat up, playing like it’s on fumes

It’s the middle of January. Football is almost over and spring practice is a month away. We’re in that window on the calendar when sports fans in most states are starting to pay attention to college basketball, but the rest of us in Georgia are again tempted to pull the sheets over our heads.

This year was supposed to be different, wasn’t it?

At least at Georgia Tech. It was supposed to be the good year, or at least the significantly better year. This would be the college basketball season when we would bear witness to something other than March Sadness.

What happened?

“We’re going to have to reinvent ourselves,” Tech coach Brian Gregory said Saturday. “We have to find another niche or something that can help us be successful in these last 13 games.”

Entering the season, Tech appeared to have the makings of an NCAA tournament team. The Yellow Jackets had talent, depth, one of the ACC’s better players in sophomore forward Robert Carter Jr. and the unexpected bonus of transfer guard Trae Golden (who would be one of four seniors in the rotation).

But it’s all come unraveled — and Tech barely is into the conference portion of the schedule. The Jackets lost to Miami 56-42 on Saturday at McCamish Pavilion. It was their fifth loss in seven games after an 8-3 start that included an impressive December win over Illinois.

They’re now 1-4 in the ACC and can’t even use that unexpected punchline anymore, “At least we have one more win than North Carolina.” (The Tar Heels won their first game Saturday, over Boston College.)

When Gregory says, “We have to reinvent ourselves,” there’s a reason for that. It sounds better than, “This isn’t the team I expected to coach. Who took my team?”

The Jackets are playing with eight scholarship players. They likely have lost two players for the season to knee injuries: Carter, a starting forward, and Travis Jorgenson, a freshman guard off the bench. Two others are out with head issues: Jason Morris has a concussion, Solomon Poole has migraines.

Gregory also has head issues. But it’s just a normal headache.

This is his third season, and it was expected to be his best season. That would’ve been well-timed with Tobacco Road looking like scorched earth. (Duke began the week ranked 23rd, the only North Carolina school in the Top 25). But the surviving Jackets haven’t adjusted well to the missing bodies.

They can’t shoot. They’re not great rebounders. They turn the ball over too often. Against Miami, they made only 13 of 44 field-goal attempts (29.5 percent), including 4 of 20 (20 percent) from 3-point range.

Tech trailed Miami by 10 points at halftime (27-17) after shooting 26 percent (5 for 19) and committing nine turnovers. That dropped to 21 percent (7 for 33) for the game after making only 2 of 14 to open the second half. A team could not possibly do much worse than 7 of 33 if it was blindfolded.

The Hurricanes are good on defense, but not that good. Miami coach Jim Larranaga said he watched tape of Tech’s recent narrow loss to Pittsburgh and was worried. “I was concerned whether we would be able to defend them,” he said.

Not a problem.

The Jackets went a span of nine minutes, 34 seconds in the first half with a field goal. Remarkably, when Quinton Stephens made a 3-pointer to end that drought with 3:23 left, they trailed only 19-17 (a testament to good Tech defense and poor Miami shooting).

But the Hurricanes scored the final eight points of the first half and the first seven of the second, as the lead ballooned to 17 points (34-17).

“Our margin for error has really shrunk, and sometimes that’s hard for guys to accept,” Gregory said. “When you say you have to be even more disciplined and tighter and execute better because Robert isn’t going to get the offensive rebound after a bad shot, it’s hard on the guys. It’s also hard on a daily basis because you only have eight guys for practice.”

Gregory defended his team’s effort at one point, but he also said, “We have to have a little greater grit,” and “We have to make sure we compete at a much higher intensity level than we did.”

He is trying to walk that fine line between pushing his players to do better while keeping them from being demoralized. But this isn’t the team he expected to coach in mid-January.

“It’s hard. But that’s part of the college basketball experience,” he said. “We have four seniors — Daniel (Miller) and (Kammeon Holsey) and Jason (Morris) and Trae. We can’t worry about what’s down the road and what we could’ve had. We have to think about the here and now.”

Problem being, the here and now isn’t what anybody could’ve expected. With 13 games left in the regular season, it’s not as if the Jackets don’t have time to turn things around. But as Gregory said, they’re going to have to reinvent themselves, and that would be one remarkable reinvention.

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