Listen to Josh Pastner speak and it’s easy to see how the Georgia Tech coach broke into college basketball as a good recruiter. Like most coaches, he has his favorite platitudes. Unlike most coaches, Pastner delivers them with an earnestness that suggests he really believes them and so should you.
Pastner is honest yet optimistic. The Yellow Jackets can’t score a lick but he’s trying everything to change that, and you almost believe he will figure it out. Pastner says the Yellow Jackets have come close to signing top recruits and soon they’ll actually snag one or two and you almost believe that, too.
Once the sugar of Pastner’s words fade from the system, you are left empty by the actual results. The reality is that Tech basketball is trending down as it nears the end of Year 3 of Pastner’s rebuild.
The Yellow Jackets (11-13) are likely to lose their sixth straight game at Virginia Tech on Wednesday. They were bad offensively during Pastner’s first two seasons, and now they are worst by a wide margin among major conference teams. That’s why Tech is 3-8 in the ACC despite being one of the league’s best defensive teams.
“I know it’s been frustrating to the fans,” Pastner said. “I know it’s frustrating to the players. I know it’s frustrating to my bosses. I know it’s frustrating to the staff. And it’s especially frustrating to me.”
Pastner’s Memphis teams almost always were good defensively, and he immediately made Tech great at that end. He shaped his first Yellow Jackets team into such good stoppers that they surprised everyone by winning eight ACC games. Pastner was voted league coach of the year.
But none of Pastner’s teams have been good offensively. The current version is the worst of all. For the program to really get going, the Jackets need to find a way to score more points.
The problem is there aren’t many good options internally, which is why the Jackets won’t even match their six ACC victories from last season. There also doesn’t appear to be help for future seasons in recruiting, which is why Tech basketball could be in trouble.
Pastner signed one highly-ranked recruit in 2018, Michael Devoe, and he looks promising. But, overall, the Jackets just don’t enough good prospects in the pipeline. This became more noticeable this week when Tom Crean, in less than one calendar year as Georgia coach, secured a pledge from perhaps the nation’s best 2019 recruit, Anthony Edwards of Atlanta’s Holy Spirit.
Crean can tell recruits he once coached NBA stars Dwyane Wade and Victor Oladipo. But Georgia obviously is not the kind of “blueblood” program that Pastner says swooped in late to sign recruits that Tech identified early. He cited Nassir Little (North Carolina), Jordan Nwora (Louisville) and Alex O’Connell (Duke) as players that the Jackets were in on until they weren’t.
By Pastner’s telling, he and his staff work hard at recruiting (which I don’t doubt) but have been a bit unfortunate (which happens). He says they will keep trying to sign players this spring. They’ll need to get “lucky” by finding some overlooked players, but also will keep targeting the top recruits even though Pastner says he’s heard that he should perhaps aim lower.
“We just need one or two studs to say ‘yes’ to really just turn the whole thing,” he said.
Pastner’s vision is for the Jackets is to “get old and stay old.” That plan took a hit when Josh Okogie declared for the 2018 NBA draft as a sophomore. Pastner’s predecessor, Brian Gregory, recruited Okogie but the player blossomed under Pastner.
Pastner said he knew Tech would be limited offensively without Okogie but didn’t think they’d struggle so much with shooting (ranked 333rd in 3-point percentage entering Tuesday). Then again, the Jackets ranked just 197th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency with Okogie in 2017-18. They ranked 283rd this season before Tuesday’s games, 105 spots below Wake Forest, the next-worst major conference team.
Tech’s two experienced shooters, Jose Alvarado and Curtis Haywood, can’t make anything despite being “wide open” on 87 percent of their attempts, Pastner says. Some bright spots: Devoe’s shooting has improved, and the Jackets earn free throws at a pretty good rate (that’s where their toughness shows up at the other end).
But the Jackets don’t have nearly enough skill or shooting to stay afloat in the ACC or anywhere else. Pastner invoked the axiom about basketball ultimately being about missing or making shots. His personal example: Matthew Dellavedova, future NBA pest, missed a shot at the buzzer for St. Mary’s that would have beaten Memphis in its opening game of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
“He air balled it, new contract,” Pastner said. “If he swished it and we lost, ‘See you coach, you’re out of here.’ That’s really the fine line of it.’”
Pastner had the Tigers in their third straight NCAA Tournament that year and had a top-three recruiting class queued up. Memphis had pretty good results and could sell hope.
Not so for the Jackets, who miss and miss shots and have neither results nor the promise of an infusion of talent. I expected more from Pastner’s program by now.
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