In sports, it’s the hardest thing to know: When is the breakthrough coming? Because just asking the question leads to another: What if it never arrives? And the answer to the latter is invariably, “The coach gets fired.”
Nobody is seriously suggesting Georgia Tech should fire Josh Pastner, even though his record after three seasons (48-53, 20-34 in ACC regular-season play) isn’t a massive upgrade over the first three under predecessor Brian Gregory (43-52 and 16-36). But Gregory, who would be gone after five seasons, did something in his Year 3 that Pastner hasn’t managed – he won an ACC tournament game.
After Tuesday’s fizzle here against 15th-seeded Notre Dame, Pastner spoke of the need to do better soon. “I didn’t come to Georgia Tech to finish in 10th place and not be in the NCAA tournament,” he said. A few hours later, he initiated a conversation-via-text with a journalist (blush), over the course of which he addressed the teams that would face off in Wednesday’s first game – N.C. State, the No. 8 seed, against No. 9 Clemson, both occupying space on the slippery slide of the NCAA bubble. What’s the difference between those two and Tech?
Pastner’s response: “If we had Josh Okogie this year, we are where they are or above. As (Virginia coach) Tony Bennett told me, when you are trying to rebuild a program, to lose a pro that you were not expecting to lose is crushing. However, Clemson is old and we just won at (State). We have to get old and stay old. We will be older next year. Our guys have improved, but this offseason is a pivotal one for us to move upward.”
Pastner expressing the need to get old and stay old has become, ahem, old hat. Nobody ticketed Okogie, a 3-star recruit, to become a Round 1 NBA draftee after his sophomore season, but he did. To his credit, Pastner took what was left and fashioned one of the best defensive teams in the land, and – as happened with Okogie and Ben Lammers – he and his staff turned the likes of Moses Wright and James Banks and Khalid Moore into serviceable ACC players. For all that, Tech still went 14-18 without a victory over a ranked opponent.
On Wednesday, the former Duke All-American and current TV analyst Mike Gminski was asked what he sees when he looks at Tech. “Defense is what (Pastner) has built it on,” he said. “I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten a little bit higher-caliber recruit from the metro Atlanta area. I’ve thought that Josh would try to build a wall around Georgia.”
Then: “I get it. The casual ACC fan doesn’t understand how difficult it is to get into Tech, what the curriculum is like and all of that.”
To date, Pastner has signed two in-state products out of high school. One was Okogie, who committed to Tech under Gregory. The other is Evan Cole, a 3-star from Cumming. There has been no wall-building. If anything, Tech is trying to dig itself out of a hole with Georgians. This is no small thing. It can never be a small thing.
Said Brian Oliver, the Smyrna native and Wills High alum who became one of the greatest players in Tech annals: “Player development is great, but you’ve got to have players.”
That said, Oliver – who’s working the tournament as a sideline reporter for Raycom – believes in Pastner. Said Oliver: “His first year at Georgia Tech, he basically said, ‘I don’t have ACC talent, so I’m going to have to do something different.’ Bad coaches can’t do that.”
That remains the tangle. Given that some Memphis fans were ecstatic to see him leave that job, Pastner has coached better than anyone expected. On Tuesday night, he offered this: “We have gotten all of our guys better. Our player development has been very good.” That might seem the false chatter of a coach who’s starved for more tangible signs of progress, but in this case it’s not.
At issue is how high coaching can take a team in the nation’s best conference. Notre Dame just finished 3-15 in league play after winning the 2015 ACC tournament and reaching the Elite Eight the next two years, and Mike Brey is as clever as they come.
Said Gminski: “I guess Okogie (leaving) was a surprise. That was what (Pastner) kind of leaned on this year. Those things happen. These young people have a lot of people in their ear.”
Then, told that Pastner insists that Tech-with-Okogie would have been an NCAA qualifier, Gminski said: “Maybe, but you’ve got to coach what’s in front of you.”
As it stands, what was in front of Pastner this season is – with the addition of transfer Jordan Usher, who started four games in two USC seasons – essentially what he’ll have next time. There seems no chance that Tech will break into the top five of a conference that could well produce three No. 1 seeds on Selection Sunday, but what of the top nine, which Pastner believes would be enough for a Dance invite?
Pastner: “We will get there. We are close. I really believe that.”
Oliver, asked if he thinks Tech will make the NCAA tournament next season: “I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes.”
Gminski: “This is what, (Pastner’s) third year? (Wake Forest’s Danny) Manning, this is his fifth, and he hasn’t gained a lot of traction. I think (Boston College’s) Jim Christian is kind of in the same boat. I would guess that the (Tech) fan base was probably expecting better recruitment.”
If you listen to Pastner, you’re told the breakthrough is nigh. If you’re a more jaded observer of Tobacco Road doings, you wonder. You’ll also note that Gminski just lumped Tech with programs that could see their coaches fired before the week is out.