The next two months for Georgia Tech hoops are huge

Georgia Tech center James Banks addresses facing Duke after defeating North Carolina. (Courtesy of Georgia Tech Athletics)

This might be Josh Pastner’s best Georgia Tech team. If it isn’t, something’s wrong. He has had four years to build. To date, the most successful band of Yellow Jackets under this coach came in Year 1, when Pastner took leftovers from Brian Gregory’s failed tenure and a 3-star recruit who committed to Gregory and took the Yellow Jackets to the NIT final.

That sort-of-giddy season — from New Year’s Eve 2016 through Jan. 28, 2017, the Jackets beat No. 9 North Carolina, which would win the national title, No. 6 Florida State and No. 14 Notre Dame — augured brighter days. Three years later, the dawn hasn’t arrived. The Jackets are 34-44 (14-26 in ACC play) since. Under this coach, Tech hasn’t yet won a game in the ACC tournament. It hasn’t been back to the second-tier NIT since 2017. It hasn’t come within three miles of the tournament that matters.

As his program has developed — or, depending on your view, hasn’t developed — Pastner has established a sliding scale of self-assessment. He began by saying his first team wasn’t supposed to win 10 games. (True enough.) It won 21. Then, when the subsequent season went pear-shaped in a swirl of player suspensions and injuries, he insisted he said all along that Year 2 would be the toughest. (Not sure about the “all along.”) Then, when Josh Okogie, the aforementioned 3-star, left for the NBA, Pastner said Year 3 was beyond hope. (Also true.)

At some point, the record tells the tale. As we speak, Pastner is 55-60 (22-36 in ACC play) as Tech’s coach. He has done better than Gregory, who was 53-62 — but only 17-43 in ACC play — after 115 games, but not that much better. This program, which crashed the Final Four twice and reached the NCAA tournament 15 times over 25 years, is approaching a decade without an invite to the Big Dance.

For the thousandth time: This shouldn’t be. Tech is based in the nation’s swankiest basketball league and in the biggest city of a state that produces top-shelf recruits by the truckload. Pastner’s failing is that, four years on, his last significant in-state signee was his first, meaning Okogie. He has landed three useful transfers from Georgia — James Banks, Jordan Usher and Bubba Parham — but Gregory hooked transfers, too. The reason then-AD Mike Bobinski hired Pastner away from Memphis was that he built a reputation as a recruiter. That knack hasn’t yet proved transferable.

Also for the thousandth time: It would be fascinating to see what Pastner could do with ACC-level talent. He has turned Michael Devoe, a 4-star from Florida, into a big-time scorer. He has developed Moses Wright, who played only one year of high school ball, into a hard-to-guard post presence. Pastner’s zone defenses remain difficult for even the best teams to solve. And yet:

Tech's best victory this season came in its opener, when it beat N.C. State in overtime in Raleigh. It played Georgia semi-close for most of the game in Athens but lost. (Pastner is 0-4 against the Bulldogs.) The Jackets lost at home to Arkansas in overtime on a banked-in 3-pointer. Every defeat since – there have been five — has been by at least 12 points, including a 34-point crushing by Syracuse and an 18-point shocker by Ball State, both coming at McCamish Pavilion. That shouldn't be, either.

We note that point guard Jose Alvarado missed four of Tech’s losses because of an injured ankle, and that, no pun intended, hurt. Tech’s strength of schedule — it’s in the top 10 — has kept it semi-respectable in overall rankings. ESPN’s BPI has the Jackets 98th; KenPom has them 87th; the NCAA’s NET rankings has them 92nd. Those will have to improve mightily for Tech to nuzzle up to the proverbial bubble. The good news is that improvement is possible.

By its standards, the ACC is down. Beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill, as Tech did Saturday, would usually spruce up a resume, but these Tar Heels — whom Roy Williams has pronounced his least gifted — mightn’t make the tournament themselves. There’s room to move in this league, and Tech could become a prime mover. No. 2 Duke was set to visit McCamish on Wednesday night. The Jackets will also play host to Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame and N.C. State. Win three of those and they’ll be on to something.

You’ll recall that Tech received a postseason NCAA ban. By filing an appeal, the Jackets stopped the clock. If a ruling on the appeal hasn’t been announced by the time the ACC/NCAA tournaments commence, Tech will be eligible. If the appeal is granted, there will be no ban, period. Those are better- and best-case scenarios. The worst would be for the Jackets to remain eligible for this year’s NCAA but fail to earn an invite – and THEN for the appeal to denied, thereby locking them out for 2021.

That would leave Pastner having to wait for Year 6 to take a team dancing, assuming he’d be given a Year 6 by his bosses, who mightn’t be so inclined. After losing to Kentucky in Rupp Arena last month, Pastner said: “The story of our season will be what we do in the ACC.” Yes indeed. The next two months are massive for Tech basketball, and for its coach.

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