Tech men’s basketball has, I believe, an unparalleled ability to inspire frustration in even the most jaded of sports fans.
At least football made it easy. After a quick start against opposing quarterbacks who feared their own shadows and defensive schemes ripped from high school playbooks, Paul Johnson’s Jackets started sliding. And when they started, they didn’t stop, save for one glorious homecoming night at Bobby Dodd.
Tech football put its fans out of their misery gently. The injuries piled up, Justin Thomas had to conjure wine from water to avoid getting sacked within three seconds of his occasional dropback, and by the time the team managed to blow a significant lead over a surprisingly good North Carolina team, the season was, for all intents and purposes, finished.
There were no false pretenses, no hope for a miraculous resolution to a litany of problems that quickly accumulated. Depressing as it may have been, fans could rest assured that they would miss little if they spent their Saturday afternoons in a more productive manner, anything but watching a trainwreck.
Where football was polite to a fault, Jackets men’s basketball has been everything but. It has led fans to believe it is on the brink of serious contention, then dragged the hopeful back into the cold reality of ACC cellar-dweller status, and, at least for a few days, back again. And you know what? I’m hanging on.
The last time we wrote about men’s basketball in this section, Brian Gregory’s squad was reeling from a 52-66 beating at the hands of the Clemson Tigers. That wasn’t anomalous, either; Tech had lost four of its last five, eight of its last ten and had scraped together a meager three wins in the new year. They were losing on the boards and squandering opportunities when they arose, leaving fans to greet late-game situations with the enthusiasm generally reserved for Congress, tax collectors and CS 2110. The only positive seemed to be the impending termination of woefully mediocre head coach Brian Gregory.
In 2011, Gregory arrived at Tech with real promise; under his watch, Dayton made the NCAA Tournament twice and the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) once, falling under the .500 mark only once and peaking at No. 18 in the Associated Press rankings during his final year with the Flyers.
Coach Paul Hewitt had worn out his welcome in Atlanta; the Jackets had lost more than they had won in three of the previous four seasons, and despite a national championship appearance in 2004, the team lagged a step or two behind its ACC rivals. Gregory represented new blood, a chance for a fresh start and an end to the middling ways of the Hewitt era.
As it so often does, hindsight has looked unkindly upon this naive hope. Tech has failed to make the perennial consolation prize NIT even once, let alone the Big Dance.
And yet, this could well be Gregory’s best season as Tech’s coach. One more win will break his regular-season record with the Jackets, and per sports-reference.com, Tech’s Simple Rating System score, a measure of a team’s quality, is poised to be its highest in Gregory’s tenure. While the defense has taken a significant step back, the Jackets are scoring nearly ten points more per game than their previous high under Gregory, and they even have a signature win to their name, a 68-64 home victory over then No. 4 Virginia.
As for the last two games? The Jackets have taken the clutch situations they so often disappoint in and made them assets. Coach Gregory drew up a play for star guard Marcus Georges-Hunt against No. 19 Notre Dame that was executed to perfection in a 63-62 win, and Georges-Hunt provided the difference in a win over Clemson with clutch free throws.
Which Jackets team will we get the rest of the way? I have no idea.