ATLANTA — Georgia Tech and Georgia are counting on large numbers of returning starters to lead turnarounds from disappointing 2011-12 seasons.
Each team opens practice on Friday.
Georgia Tech is the only Atlantic Coast Conference team to return all five starters. The Yellow Jackets were 11-20 in their first season under coach Brian Gregory, including a win at Georgia. Georgia Tech will open its new arena, McCamish Pavilion, after not having a true home court last season.
Gregory hopes the new arena, built under the roof of the old Alexander Memorial Coliseum, helps to bring fans back to Georgia Tech home games. Home attendance was declining before his hire, and the Yellow Jackets played their home games at Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta and the Gwinnett Arena near Atlanta last season.
“Our home games won’t seem like away games anymore,” said junior center Daniel Miller.
Guard Jason Morris said the season without a true home court made the players truly appreciate their first visits to the new arena.
“When we walked in there we were kind of like little kids in an orphanage who got adopted,” Morris said.
Gregory noted that half of Georgia Tech’s students – all the sophomores and freshmen – have never had the chance to attend a home game on campus.
“I hope our fan base that has been so important to this program at least is starting to get a little re-energized,” Gregory said. “That’s so important for us to re-establish this program where it was before and where we want to get to down the road.”
Georgia Tech was only 4-12 in ACC games last season. It averaged only 58.6 points in conference games, a record low for Georgia Tech in the shot-clock era. The dismal average didn’t include a 54-36 loss to Miami in the ACC tournament.
Two of the returning starters could be keys to improved scoring. Miller, who has started every game the last two seasons, scored in double figures in eight of the last 10 games last season. Forward Kammeon Holsey was in double figures in six of the last nine games.
“I think that one of the things that we were able to establish toward the end of last year is maybe we were more of a post presence,” Gregory said. “You win with high-percentage shots, and how do you get those high percentage shots? You get them in transition. The best way to score in the post is in the open court, and we’ve got to do a good job with our guys running.”
Miller predicted Holsey will emerge this season as “one of the best offensive posts in the league.”
Gregory said the team’s four inside players — Miller, Holsey, Julian Royal and freshman Robert Carter — all are effective running in the transition game.
Joining Miller and Holsey as returning starters are Morris and guards Brandon Reed and Mfon Udofia, a senior who averaged 9.9 points per game last season.
Georgia, which finished 15-17 last season, returns four starters. The Bulldogs’ only departed starter is guard Gerald Robinson, who led the team with his 14.2 points per game. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was close behind Robinson in scoring with 13.2 points per game as a freshman and is expected to be the team’s top player this season.
Also returning are forwards Marcus Thornton, Donte Williams and Nemanja Djursic. Senior Vincent Williams will compete with freshman Charles Mann at point guard.
Mark Fox, starting his fourth season as Georgia’s coach, said two more freshmen, guard Kenny Gaines and small forward Brandon Morris, could compete for starting jobs “if they’ll play to their ability and do what they’re told.”
“I’ve had a lot of freshmen in my career who have started for me,” Fox said. “They would have to earn that, and they’ve got some guys ahead of them that don’t want to be beat out. It will be fun to watch.
“I think we have great competition for playing time on this team, and that’s something we’ve never had here since I came.”
Last year’s team, which finished 5-11 in Southeastern Conference games, couldn’t overcome the departures of Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie to the NBA.
Fox said this team should be more competitive, thanks to the maturity of the returning players and the addition of freshmen accustomed to winning.
Gaines was named a Parade magazine All-America after he averaged 29 points in leading Whitefield Academy to Georgia’s Class A state championship. Morris played on three straight Class AAAA state championship teams at Miller Grove High School in Lithonia. Mann helped Milton High win the Class AAAAA state title.
“Really, I like this team,” Fox said. “This is the first team I’ve had at Georgia where I recruited every player and we have a culture I’m excited about. We have some new faces and unlike last year we return a lot of production. This is a group I’m looking forward to coaching.”
The Georgia and Georgia Tech women’s teams already started practice.