Pastner has maximized Tech’s talent. That’s the problem

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner speaks with media February 8, 2019 at the Zelnak Basketball Center.
Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner speaks with media February 8, 2019 at the Zelnak Basketball Center.

This is Josh Pastner’s best coaching job at Georgia Tech, better even than the 21-win rookie season that saw him named ACC coach of the year for taking the Yellow Jackets to the NIT final. Over 95 games, we’ve seen enough to know that Tech is working under an astute tactician, which should augur only seashells and balloons. The loaded key word is: “should.”

Tech is 11-15. Pastner is 45-50, which isn’t a marked upgrade from his overmatched predecessor. Through 95 games, Brian Gregory was 43-52. As we speak, Pastner has wrung the absolute most from what he has, all of which has enabled the Jackets to lose their past seven games.

After the latest loss, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton – who’s 70, and whose first job saw him lure the legendary Fly Williams from Brownsville, N.Y., to Austin Peay – called Tech’s defense “probably the best match-up zone scheme I’ve seen in my coaching career.” Tech lost 69-47, its 40th point coming with 90 seconds to play.

Pastner’s first Tech team had Ben Lammers, whom Pastner turned into a player, and Josh Okogie, who was always going to be a player. This team has, and I’m trying to be polite, nothing much. Its best player is Jose Alvarado, a guard who has made 37.7 percent of his shots. Its second-best is James Banks, who managed as many baskets (one) as technical fouls against FSU.

You could hand this roster to Mike Krzyzewski, the best there ever was, and he wouldn’t win 20 games. Indeed, Krzyzewski’s star-spangled Duke crew trailed Tech 35-27 with 18 minutes remaining on Jan. 26, whereupon reality and Zion Williamson reared their heads.

Pastner has taught Tech to play great – the adjective is apt – defense. As he said after Saturday’s loss to the Seminoles: “Defense is all about effort, motor, toughness, second-effort, third-effort, multiple-effort, things that you can control. It’s not a talent-based thing. If you look at our numbers – we’re one of the best defensive teams in the country – it’s (because) our guys play hard all the time. They compete. That gives us a chance.”

Then came the “but,” which you knew was coming: “The struggle is, you get a chance but you’re not scoring. Scoring comes down a lot of times to … you’ve got to have some athleticism. You’ve got to have the innate ability just to go score.”

Pastner defines three consecutive stops as a “kill.” He has studied kills. If you get seven in a game, you win 90 percent of the time. Tech has met its kill goal many times this season and lost. Against FSU, it managed a double-kill – six consecutive stops – and saw its deficit hold at 13 points throughout. Said Pastner: “You’ve just got to keep staying with it because eventually the ball’s got to go in.”

Which brings us to the salient issue: Does it? If offense is a function of talent, where’s Tech’s talent?

On the job since April 2016, Pastner has signed no 5-star prospects and one 4-star (Michael Devoe, now a freshman). He has signed two players from Georgia – Okogie, a 3-star who’d committed to Tech when Gregory was in place, and 3-star Evan Cole from Cumming. Apologies for hopping back on my hobbyhorse, but an ACC program based in this state should never go hungry. Still, of the five Georgians on Tech’s roster, two are transfers and two were walk-ons, and here we note that FSU’s Georgia products outscored Tech’s 28-4 on Saturday.

Pastner writes off this forlorn season to Okogie’s unexpected-by-Tech decision to leave for the NBA last spring. “Josh was like our Alpha Male – just that toughness, he was able to get to the free-throw line. (His absence is) going to be good for us in recruiting. We’re going to sign guys as we go into the spring. … It gives guys opportunities to play. It’s great for Josh; it’s great for Georgia Tech. It just sucks for this season.”

And yet: The Jackets have signed only one player – David Didenko, a JUCO averaging 4.0 points for Palm Beach State – for next season. Pastner promised Saturday that more help is en route, but this came as cold comfort after a week that saw Anthony Edwards, a 5-star who attends school 7.6 miles from McCamish Pavilion, announce his intention to spend next season at Georgia.

It wasn’t as if Tech ignored Ant-Man. The Jackets offered a scholarship he was an underclassman at Therrell High. (He has since transferred to Holy Spirit Prep and, in November, reclassified from junior to senior.) They thought they might have traction, but eventually they were informed otherwise.

Said Pastner, who isn’t allowed to comment directly on a prospect who hasn’t signed with Tech: “We want to recruit at a high level. That’s our goal. We’ve been snake-bitten a couple of times. We’ve recruited at a high level and at the last minute a blue blood came in said, ‘Boom,’ and the kid chose there.”

(These were references to Alex O’Connell of Alpharetta, who signed with Duke in 2016, and Nassir Little of Orlando, who signed with North Carolina in 2017 and is expected to be a one-and-done lottery pick. For the record, Pastner has no qualms about signing one-and-dones. Heck, he’d love one.)

Pastner again: “You’ve got to remember – this isn’t a negative; this is a positive – Georgia Tech is the only school in Division I that plays football and basketball that doesn’t have a Liberal Arts degree. My first question to prospects is, ‘What math are you in?’ I’m very careful that if somebody isn’t strong in math, it’s going to be hard for them here. That’s not an excuse. We’ve got to find guys.”

He’s right. It can’t be an excuse. Bobby Cremins found big-timers. Paul Hewitt found big-timers. Over 95 games, Pastner has proved he can maximize meager resources. He has also proved that meager resources will take only you so far.

Twice this year, Pastner told his men they needed to hold ranked opponents under 60 points to have a chance; both times they did, and both times they lost because they couldn’t break 50. The only way this will ever work is if the master strategist finds someone capable of putting the ball the ball in the basket. As much as we try to complicate it, sometimes the game is just that simple.

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