For Tech’s postseason hopes, never too early to start stacking wins

Georgia Tech forward Charles Mitchell will need to help lead a strong finishing surge in the Yellow Jackets' final four non-conference games, starting Monday night against Appalachian State. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Georgia Tech forward Charles Mitchell will need to help lead a strong finishing surge in the Yellow Jackets’ final four non-conference games, starting Monday night against Appalachian State. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

If you’re not paying attention to the Georgia Tech basketball team, you’re probably not alone. The football team is ramping up for the Orange Bowl and the ACC season doesn’t start for almost three more weeks. After beating Appalachian State Monday night 70-57, the team closes with Vanderbilt, Dayton and Charlotte before opening ACC play.

That said, while it might be a bit much to say that the Yellow Jackets’ postseason aspirations hang in the balance, Tech does need to get as much hay in the barn as it can before conference play begins.

The Yellow Jackets have 18 ACC games. In coach Brian Gregory’s three seasons, Tech has had records of 4-12, 6-12 and 6-12. Gregory said last week that he thought the 2013-14 team was better than the 2012-13 team, which is reasonable. Had forward Robert Carter not missed 10 games with a knee injury and guard Trae Golden likewise not suffered a groin injury, I think it’s reasonable to think the Jackets could have won eight or nine ACC games and had a better overall record than the 12-13 team. (16-15 two years ago, 15-17 last year) Had they won nine ACC games, their overall record would have been 19-14 (keeping ACC tournament results the same) and they would have had a shot at the NIT. (My guess is Carter might also have stayed, but that’s another story.)

Last week, Gregory said he thought that this year’s team will be better than last year’s.

“What does that translate to?” he asked. “That remains to be seen.”

That is most entirely the case. Going into the Appalachian State game, Tech’s big men had had some turnover issues recently, which Gregory called the biggest concern over the last couple games. Forward Charles Mitchell had five turnovers in the loss to USC-Upstate two Saturdays ago and has nine in the past three games. Forward Robert Sampson has had five turnovers in the past three games.

Last season, big men Daniel Miller and Kammeon Holsey averaged 20.7 and 15.3 minutes per turnover, respectively. Mitchell’s average in the past three games is 8.1 minutes/turnover. Sampson’s is 12.3. Center Demarco Cox’s is 26.

“That’s a big concern of mine,” he said, “because offensively, our big guys touch the ball. When you face a zone, your big guys have to get the ball. You can’t just play on top of the zone.”

Gregory said it was partially due to having limited practice time over that stretch, when Tech played its three games at the Orlando Thanksgiving tournament, then the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game against Northwestern and the USC-Upstate game over a 10-day span.

While the first reaction to the Upstate loss is that Tech has no business losing to such a team, bear in mind that in the last 10 days, Michigan lost to New Jersey Institute of Technology, Green Bay lost to Miami, Radford beat Virginia Tech and Wofford beat N.C. State.

“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Gregory said. “If you don’t play well for 40 minutes, you’ve got a good chance of losing. In this day and age, there’s good players everywhere.”

Which brings us back to the remaining non-conference games of the season – Vanderbilt Saturday, at Dayton Dec. 23 and Charlotte Dec. 30.

After taking care of Appalachian State, the final three are games Tech could well lose. The Jackets lost to Vanderbilt and Dayton and nearly lost to Charlotte last season.

Tech is 7-2. It’s not unreasonable to think Tech needs to get to 18 wins to have a decent shot at the NIT. In the past two years, only four out of 25 teams made the NIT with 17 or fewer wins.

Let’s say Tech splits the ACC schedule at 9-9. It would be the first time the Jackets have been .500 in the ACC since the 2006-07 season, but, taking Gregory at his word, if this team is indeed better than last year’s, and last year’s team could have gotten to 8-10 in league play with just a little more injury luck and a few more plays, then nine wins isn’t unreasonable.

Here’s one way to nine – sweep Clemson and Wake Forest, beat Boston College, N.C. State, Florida State at home and Virginia Tech on the road. That’s eight. (Tech has lost 10 in a row to Clemson, but of the seven losses in the Gregory era, five have been by four points or fewer.) Then pick off one of the remaining 10 – two against Notre Dame, two against North Carolina, at home against Louisville and Syracuse, on the road against Pittsburgh, Virginia, Miami and Duke.

Nine ACC wins and the seven already makes 16. That leaves the next three games, needing two and perhaps all three. That’s 18 or 19. I’d think Tech would at least have a shot at its first postseason appearance since 2010 with that win total.

That said, it’s no guarantee for the NIT. Getting to 20 or 21 makes Tech far safer, although it’s conceivable the Jackets could do that in the ACC tournament.

Also, it’s not beyond reason that Tech could make the NCAA tournament. I’m not betting the farm on it, but let’s say the Jackets get two wins out of the next three going into ACC play (to get to 9-3), the eight wins I’m assigning them (17-3) and then three of the remaining 10 (20-10) instead of just one. With a couple conference tournament wins to get to 22-11, Tech would be on the bubble, I’d think.

Unlikely? Probably. Impossible? No.

There’s plenty of reason to believe this team has enough guard play, post play and depth to exceed expectations. It’s a matter of it melding. The recent turnover spate from the post players doesn’t suggest that it’s impending, but Gregory was hopeful that the next two weeks, where his team will have more practice time, will be beneficial.

It’s not like Tech can’t recover if it doesn’t win two or three of the remaining non-conference games. But once ACC play starts, it’ll become increasingly difficult to make up ground.

“You’re cognizant of (the need to build the resume) or you wouldn’t have done the schedule (as it’s been done),” Gregory said. “You look at this next stretch of games, against pretty good teams. You’re cognizant of it. What we need to do, though, is like I said earlier, we kind of looked at it and broke it down, these first eight games – where are you at? And then these next three and then, to be honest with you, you almost throw Charlotte in with an ACC game. We’ve got 19 ACC games. They’re top 50 in the RPI or 75 in the RPI. I think the one kid from Clemson (Bernard Sullivan) will be eligible when we play them. … You just kind of keep going from that. When you’re at where we’re at, you have big picture view of it but the progression as a team is the most important.”


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