I've found over the years that a new basketball coach can do a lot for a team. As long as there's some talent there, a team can overachieve just on the optimism he inspires, and a new playing style opposing coaches can't scout as well for. The biggest example in recent years was Sidney Lowe's first season at State, where he took a team that really only retained Engin Atsur and Gavin Grant from Sendek's last NCAA-qualifying team, and beat UNC in Raleigh before making a surprising run to the ACC Championship game. Or consider Tony Bennett, who took a team consisting of Sylvan Landesberg and little else, beat UNC in Chapel Hill, and jumped out to a 5-2 ACC start before losing their last nine. A new coach isn't going turn things around completely in his first season, but there's an opportunity to surprise.
Contrast this with Brian Gregory, new coach at Georgia Tech. He wasn't left much by outgoing coach Paul Hewitt, but he has the rather phenomenal Glen Rice, Jr. and an experienced point guard in Mfon Udofia. I don't expect a world-beater, but I' think they could compete in the wide-open middle of the conference.
Instead, we're seeing the worst start for a new ACC coach since, well, Jeff Bzdelik last season. Tech has won one game since Christmas, an inexplicable 82-71drubbing of State in Raleigh. In that game Rice (22 points) and Udofia (17) caught fire from beyond the arc, as the Yellow Jackets would hit 9 of 15 threes. Rice followed that performance with two games where he didn't crack double-digit scoring, and the team as a whole has scored more the 50 points once in the last four games. The offense is sputtering mightily.
None of that is going to stop UNC fans from being a little on edge, though, because the Tar Heels haven't seen the Yellow Jackets since the nadir of last season, a 78-58 loss in Atlanta that stood as one of the worst of Roy Williams' tenure in Chapel Hill. It was the last game Larry Drew II would start as a Tar Heel, and a complete and utter failure, from Iman Shumpert's rampant scoring to the rebounding performance of Brian Oliver and Daniel Miller.
The good news is Shumpert and Oliver are both long gone, to the NBA and Seton Hall. Miller stands as the lone big man with any decent defensive prowess, and sets to face off against a Tyler Zeller with something to prove. The offense has struggled to move the ball, with one of the lowest assist-to-field goals mad ratio in the nation. There's little to no ball movement, just a hope that Rice or his fellow guards can create something. Seeing how no one amongst the starters is hitting more than a third of their threes, these creations are few and far between.
The Tech defense has bitten the Heels in the past, racking up 13 steals in their last meeting and 11 in the one prior to that, another Yellow Jacket win. But even there Tech has regressed under Gregory, playing more conservative and not attempting to pick as many pockets. The results have been disastrous, as only Maryland has a worst rate of turnover generation. Tech is a team that relies on interior defense now, but doesn't have the talent to go head-to-head with Zeller or John Henson. Or so I believe, at least. Sophomore Kammeon Holsey will find himself paired against Henson, and while he's had the occasional big game, especially during Tech's recent floundering, I don't see him having much success against the bigger, longer, Tar Heel.
But then again, I never do, and Tech has surprised in the last few years. This is a good test of UNC's mental toughness. The rush of playing State and finding their way without Dexter Strickland has worn off, and now with little preparation they get a team they should handle easily, and at home. Carolina has no excuse for not dominating this game, especially considering what Tech did last season. Now it's left to see whether they will.