Men’s basketball strong at halfway mark

Photo by John Nakano

Entering this season, it was fair to wonder whether men’s basketball head coach Brian Gregory was running out of time to demonstrate his worthiness as Paul Hewitt’s successor. After all, Hewitt led the team to five NCAA Tournament berths, including the only Final Four appearance in school history. Meanwhile, Gregory had only managed one winning season, a 16-15 effort in 2012 that ended with a first-round loss to Boston College in the conference tournament. While multiple high-caliber opponents stand between the Jackets and national relevance, the 2015-16 team has proven itself ready to face that veritable gauntlet.

Tech took a 7-2 record and 3-game winning streak into winter break. That included an impressive 77-64 win over VCU, a team that had made five straight NCAA Tournament appearances and launched previous head coach Shaka Smart to national recognition. The run of success ended at the hands of rival Georgia, the Bulldogs’ first win against the Jackets in Coach Gregory’s tenure. Gregory’s players responded to the loss by going undefeated in a three-game home stand versus Southeastern Louisiana, Colgate and Duquesne. That left the team at an impressive 10-3 mark entering conference play.

Tech’s first two ACC contests were representative of the challenge it faces, close road losses against top-25 foes UNC and Pittsburgh. They prepared the team for its most impressive victory of the season, a 68-64 home win over No. 4 Virginia, a game in which the Jackets enjoyed success from beyond the three-point arc and stymied the Cavaliers’ typically consistent offense.

Tech’s ability to compete with top-flight opponents is hardly new; the team played two close games against Notre Dame last season, along with single-digit losses to Louisville and Duke. But its winning effort against Virginia was its first against a top-five team since 2010. And the team is achieving success in a surprising way: on the shoulders of a high-scoring offense.

Thus far this season, Tech is scoring 77.5 points per game, its highest mark since 2007-08 and more than 14 points better than its 2014-15 performance. While the defense has slackened, allowing more points per game than it has since 2008-09, that decline can in part be attributed to an increased number of possessions for both teams (opponents attempted 53.03 shots per game last season and 59.69 thus far this season.)

This more uptempo brand of basketball is in large part thanks to the emergence of two transfers: former Maryland guard Adam Smith and former Alabama forward Nick Jacobs. In conjunction with the rest of the senior class, Smith and Jacobs have helped the Jackets rank in the top 40 nationally in three-point percentage and rebounds, respectively.

In collegiate athletics, experience is fickle. Tech’s upperclassman-laden roster will undergo major turnover this offseason, as all four of the team’s leading scorers graduate. Until then, though, the Jackets find themselves in ideal position: experienced, motivated and soon to be battle-tested.  Should the team continue at its current pace, fans should prepare for an exciting postseason.