It was only a month ago that this Tech men’s basketball team seemed destined to take flight, to separate itself from the legacy of middling play that has doomed coach Brian Gregory’s teams in years past. There would be a postseason to look forward to, packed arenas and national recognition for a program that has toiled in the cellar while rivals like Duke and North Carolina have enjoyed the spotlight.
The experience and talent were there, the players were hungry and by and large, the results were indicative of a step forward. The Jackets were 11-5, relishing a victory over No. 4 Virginia. It appeared to boast an offense that was finding its footing and the momentum it needed to hold its own against a typically brutal ACC schedule.
That hope has not materialized. Now perched dangerously close to .500 at 13-11 and with only three conference wins under its belt, the sun is not shining on The Flats. Instead, a team once considered in the running to potentially be the best in recent memory may need to virtually run the remaining gauntlet in a fight for relevance — and potentially the continued employment of its coach.
This is not to say that coach Gregory’s teams have been outclassed at every turn. A brief look at the schedule reveals a number of close contests, the sort of games that could go either way in the final minutes.
Miami only led Tech by one going into halftime, the Jackets bested Duke by four in the first half, and the team led rival Virginia Tech by 10 going into break before allowing the Hokies to storm back in the second half. These are quality teams, many of which best the Jackets on the recruiting trail routinely. While a Tech education is certainly an asset in and of itself, Gregory cannot boost NCAA tournament appearances or a steady pipeline to the NBA, let alone virtual guarantees of superstar-dom.
There is nothing shameful about dropping a game to one of the many powerhouses that lay waste to the rest of the ACC. The increasingly real concern with the 2015-16 team, though, is accepting those losses as the norm.
The schedule does not lets up for the Jackets. Such is life for a team playing in the most consistently dominant conference in college basketball They face off twice in the course of 10 days against a fiery Clemson team that has defied the meager expectations it faced at season’s start, including back-to-back-to-back home wins against Louisville, Duke and Miami. The Tigers have cooled off since, losing three of their last four games, but with nearly a week between their Feb. 8 loss to Notre Dame and their matchup against Tech, there is little doubt that Clemson will be prepared and hungry. Tech also travels to Tallahassee to face the Florida State Seminoles, who have won four straight games, including two by double digits (prior to their Feb. 11 game at Syracuse).
For Coach Gregory, these last few weeks of the season may hold particular meaning. Since the NCAA Tournament’s expansion to 64 teams in 1985, Gregory is poised to become the only coach in ACC history to lead a team for five seasons without a single postseason appearance. Finding similar situations requires a trip back to the Civil Rights Era. It’s unclear whether his job is in immediate peril, especially since the team will be deprived of veteran leadership next year with a litany of key contributors graduating. But the results by and large speak for themselves. Under Gregory’s tenure, the Jackets have been good but not good enough. They have competed valiantly but lost more close games than they have won. Considering the talent deficit they often face, it is almost appropriate to declare that the team has overachieved. Reducing that gap, though, rests almost entirely in the hands of coach Gregory, and put simply, he has failed to bridge it. So far, the decision makers in Tech athletics have been content to accept middle-of-the-road performances from coach Gregory and the Jackets. If they fail to turn their season around, that may no longer suffice.