The ACC schedule got harder for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets before it even started, with the loss of standout forward Robert Carter Jr. to impending knee surgery.
But his team forges on to Maryland, where the Jackets begin the rigorous new 18-game league schedule Saturday. First they have road games at Maryland and No. 7 Duke, then they come home to play ACC-newcomers Notre Dame and Pittsburgh.
Time to “go out there and compete,” as Tech coach Brian Gregory said this week. “See what happens.”
The Jackets (9-4) bring a little security from the fact that they’ve played their toughest non-conference schedule in three seasons under Gregory, with seven games against potential NCAA tournament-caliber teams. They went 3-4 in those games, including 1-3 on the road, but bring some momentum from Sunday’s 58-55 win at Charlotte.
“We’re shooting better from the field than … last year at this point against a much more difficult schedule,” said Gregory, whose team’s production is up about six points per game. “We’re rebounding better. We’re shooting better from the free-throw line, getting to the free-throw line more, doing a lot of good things. We just need to continue that.
“There are some key issues that are going to be important over the next couple months that we do a very good job of because if you don’t in this league, you put yourself in a difficult situation.”
One aspect he pointed to after the Charlotte win was guard play. Tech is in need of someone to emerge to share backcourt responsibilities with senior combo guard Trae Golden. Now that will extend to the post, where sixth man Kammeon Holsey is expected to join Daniel Miller, filling in for Carter (10.3 points, 9.3 rebounds.)
Jason Morris started at shooting guard in place of Chris Bolden on Sunday night, despite playing only seven minutes in his first two games back from foot surgery. Morris played 23 minutes against Charlotte, shooting only 1-for-6 from the floor, including 0-for-4 from 3-point range, but looks to build on his progress.
“These past few years have been tough,” said Morris, who has battled foot injuries. “Just being back out there is a start. Now it’s time to contribute and step up.”
Bolden played only six minutes against Charlotte, and neither Stacey Poole nor his brother Solomon Poole played at all, which Gregory said was “a coaching decision.” But with the team down to 10 healthy scholarship players now — Carter is out indefinitely, facing arthroscopic surgery Tuesday, and freshman point guard Travis Jorgenson (knee) is out for the season — opportunities abound.
Freshman Quinton Stephens has given Tech a lift off the bench. He had four points and six rebounds in 18 minutes against Charlotte. “He’s a kid that you can challenge, you can get on because he wants to get better,” Gregory said. “He is a dependable player. And that’s going to serve him well.”
Maryland (9-5) has won four of its past five games, including its ACC opener against Boston College. The Terrapins were buoyed by the return of point guard Seth Allen, who missed the first eight weeks of the season with a broken foot. He scored 15 points off the bench in Maryland’s win over Tulsa on Sunday and six points in 20 minutes against North Carolina Central.
“I think sometimes we underestimate how important one piece is because it’s not just ‘OK, he’s out’ and you just plug somebody else in,” Gregory said. “What ends up happening is it adjusts the game for the other guys on the court as well.”
He could have just as easily been talking about his own team, with the loss of Jorgenson and Carter. But he’s looking to the likes of Morris and his fellow three seniors to carry the load.
“I always say, as good as our underclassmen are, your season is usually determined by the type of years your seniors have,” Gregory said. “I challenged both Kam and Daniel and (Morris) and Trae, the four seniors, to have their best years of their career.”
Golden said Gregory mentioned Carter’s injury only once as the team prepared for its trip to Maryland, where the Jackets will try to break a streak of seven consecutive losses in ACC openers. Then he got back to the business at hand.
“He said it’s not a time to be down,” Golden said. “He said we’ve just got to make sure people come ready to play. Some people are going to be forced into different roles, maybe different positions. They’ve just got to be ready to play. That’s the great thing about a team. It’s a team. It’s not about one guy or what they think what they should be doing. Everybody’s got to be able to step up.”