Georgia Tech’s birthday gift to Brian Gregory

ATLANTA: Marcus Georges-Hunt (right) gets five from Quinton Stephens after defeating VCU in a basketball game on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Atlanta. Georgia Tech won the game 77-64.     Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Marcus Georges-Hunt’s 11-for-12 night from the free-throw line helped Georgia Tech surpass VCU Tuesday night. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

As a birthday gift to coach Brian Gregory, his team crushed it at the free-throw line.

In their 77-64 win over VCU Tuesday night, the Yellow Jackets made 24 of 26 free-throw attempts at McCamish Pavilion, a stunning 92.3 percent. Pretty good work for a team that finished last season 312th in the country at free-throw accuracy at 64.8 percent.

Curiously, VCU was 12-for-12; the Rams were making 67.4 percent prior to Tuesday.

“So it must have been something in the air tonight,” said Gregory, who turned 49 Tuesday.

In terms of percentage, it was the 15th best performance in school history (minimum 15 free throws) and the highest rate for Tech in Gregory’s tenure. Efficiency at the free-throw line is especially meaningful to Gregory, who made 81.6 percent of his free throws as a player at Oakland University.

In a season that thus far has distinguished itself from Gregory’s first four seasons for the team’s offensive efficiency, the Jackets have done likewise at the free-throw line. Tech is now shooting 72.9 percent for the season. The Jackets were 69.9 percent prior to the game, good for 140th in the country. Not exactly Mark Price territory, but given that three of Gregory’s first four teams were among the 10 poorest free-throw shooting teams in Tech history (all 65.4 percent or lower), it’s a start.

Forward Marcus Georges-Hunt was 11-for-12 against VCU, improving his season rate to 83.9 percent. Georges-Hunt shot 76.3 percent last season, steady improvement from his freshman (62.9 percent) and sophomore (67.4 percent) seasons.

Georges-Hunt credits work he did over the summer when he was recovering from a broken foot. He took hundreds of shots a day while seated in a chair, which helped him hone his form.

“It gave me a great time to concentrate on my form and technique,” Georges-Hunt said. “I think that’s what happened a lot.”

There aren’t a lot of other secrets, though. As has been Gregory’s practice since his arrival, Tech shoots dozens of free throws during each practice during different segments throughout each session. The goal is to make 80 percent. At the end of practice, Georges-Hunt said after the game, players have to make 20 of 25. If they don’t, they have to then make eight out of 10. Players can’t leave the gym until they’ve met the standard. (In the past, and I believe this is still the case, players who don’t make 80 percent during practice also have to run sprints.)

Said Georges-Hunt, “Our team is being disciplined, and it’s paying off.”

Forward Charles Mitchell is a particularly successful project of Gregory’s. He shot 54 percent as a freshman at Maryland and 32.9 percent as a sophomore before improving to 66.3 percent last season. He’s now at 70.6 percent. Mitchell said that, at Maryland, he didn’t have much of a plan at the line, but now slows down and follows a routine.

“Now I get older and wiser, (missing) is like leaving points at the line for my team,” he said.

As an aside, Price’s Charlotte team was shooting 68.2 percent from the line through nine games. It’s evidence once again, as Gregory would likely attest, there’s a lot more that goes into a good free-throw shooting team than having a coach who was once an excellent free-throw shooter. Gregory is presumably no better at coaching free throws than he was a year ago, but his highest volume free-throw shooter is above 85 percent (thanks to Gregory’s work over four years and Georges-Hunt’s intense training over the summer) and others have made strides to become decent to excellent.

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