ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech is rebuilding.
As if breaking in a new coach with a downsized roster wasn't enough of a challenge, the Yellow Jackets won't have a true home arena this season because their campus coliseum is, well, under construction.
"There's so much stacked against us," said Jason Morris, one of just nine scholarship players for coach Brian Gregory's first season. "All that negative energy, you can either let it pull you down or let it fuel you every day to come out and play your hardest."
Indeed, Georgia Tech's once-proud program -- was it really just eight seasons ago that this team went to the national championship game? -- is starting over from scratch.
Paul Hewitt's decade-long reign ended with another disappointing season, the Yellow Jackets slumping to 13-18 overall and 5-11 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. More telling were all the empty seats at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, where attendance sank to just more than 6,000 a game -- a far cry from the sellout crowds that once packed the arena with regularity.
There doesn't figure to be much recovery on the attendance front, at least not this season. The Thrillerdome is undergoing a massive renovation, with essentially a new facility being built under the signature roof that dates from the 1950s. So, Georgia Tech will split its home games between an arena in suburban Gwinnett County (about 25 miles from campus) and Philips Arena, home of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks.
"We'll have to use each other to get fired up for the games," center Daniel Miller said. "We can't rely on the crowd. Maybe now and then we'll get a good crowd, but we can't count on it every time. We'll have to rely on each other."
Gregory hopes to put that us-against-the-world mindset to good use in his new job. The 44-year-old took over at Georgia Tech after eight seasons at Dayton, where he guided the Flyers to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances and an average of nearly 22 wins a year.
He might be fortunate to win half that many games this season, so his initial goals won't be measured in wins and losses.
"The chemistry of this team, the camaraderie of this team, that's something we're working on every single day," Gregory said. "Every day, we need to take a step forward. The guys understand that. That's the challenge for this team. There's a lot of new things being thrown at 'em."
He doesn't have a lot of players to work with. There are only nine scholarship players on the roster, forcing Gregory to hold tryouts to fill out the spots he'll need to conduct full-scale practices. There's only one holdover from last year's team, Glen Rice Jr., who averaged in double figures.
Top scorer Iman Shumpert (17.3 points a game) bolted for the NBA on the day Gregory was hired. Brian Oliver (10.5) transferred to Seton Hall after the coaching change was made. So that leaves Rice (12.8) and a bunch of players who'll have to carry a lot more of the load than they did a year ago.
Morris, who averaged 6 points a game as a freshman, is the most likely candidate to step up his game. Gregory also is expecting significant improvement from 6-foot-11 sophomore Daniel Miller, who didn't show much averaging 4.4 points in Hewitt's final year.
If nothing else, Gregory is stressing the concept of team. He wants all five players on the court to work as a cohesive unit, both offensively and -- more important -- at the defensive end. That's probably the only way this team might steal a few extra wins.
"He wants to make sure there are five guys guarding the ball," Morris said. "In practice, if one guy gets beat off the dribble and the help guy wasn't there, he doesn't yell at the guy who got beat. He yells at the rest of the team. He'll say, 'Where were you? You should've helped your guy out."'
While Gregory would certainly prefer to have a true home arena, he hopes to use the temporary nature of this season to build something more permanent. Especially in the first two months, when the Yellow Jackets will be busing through Atlanta's notorious traffic to play at the Gwinnett arena, he sees a unique opportunity.
Not wanting to risk getting caught up in rush hour, Georgia Tech will actually head out for those contests early in the day. They'll gather at a hotel near the arena for last-minute meetings and a pre-game meal, giving it the feel of a road game even though the Yellow Jackets will be the ones wearing the white jerseys.
"My hope is that, even for home games, we'll start to build some of that chemistry that only develops in hotel rooms and on bus trips and in locker rooms, sitting on bad chairs, those type of things," Gregory said. "We need to embrace that challenge as a team. We've talked about. Hopefully we'll be able to use it as a positive."
Gregory has certainly stepped up the intensity level. While Hewitt was known for his laid-back style, the new coach seems determined to bring a new fire to this struggling program.
The players have certainly noticed the change.
"It's hard to match the coolness of coach Hewitt," Morris said. "Tall Paul. He was just a cool guy. Coach Gregory has a little more fire in his approach. He's a little more amped up."
Given how far this program has fallen, a new approach certainly can't hurt.
"I think we definitely need a lot more fire," Morris said. "Coach Hewitt had that fire in him, but this is at a different level. Coach Gregory doesn't back off. He wants the best for you. He won't let you get down on yourself. He's on you 24-7. I think that's something this group needs."