Examining what happened to Tech’s plans for a great basketball signing class

The athletic, high-scoring guard that Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner has craved? Marcus Watson’s AAU coach expected him to commit to Tech until he aligned with Oklahoma State. The big man that the Yellow Jackets need with James Banks graduating after the upcoming season? Orlando Robinson’s AAU coach thought Tech was a great option for him, but he ended up at Fresno State.

A long-armed forward who can drive to the basket, rebound and hit the 3? Before he committed to Northwestern, Robbie Beran said he could have envisioned himself playing for the Yellow Jackets.

Pastner had plans for greatness for the 2019 signing class, one that he said needed to have “two or three studs” to help keep the Jackets on the path back to the NCAA tournament, and the pieces were in place for it to happen. Barring unforeseen circumstances, though, the class will fall short of great by standard measurements. When the regular signing period begins Wednesday, Tech has one player expected to sign – guard Asanti Price of Columbia, S.C.

Price is an under-the-radar prospect, the kind of player that Pastner has identified as part of his “get old and stay old” plan. Tech also will be able to play transfer guard Jordan Usher no later than the end of December, if not the start of the season. Tech also signed junior-college forward David Didenko in November, though indications are that he will not enroll.

In the transfer market, Tech is in the top five for Christian Keeling, a guard from Charleston Southern and Augusta who has twice earned All-Big South honors, although North Carolina also is in the mix, which typically doesn’t bode well for Tech.

The search for the coveted studs, though, continues. As happened in his first two recruiting cycles, Pastner has had difficulty landing the biggest fish.

“He’s missed on some kids I thought he was going to get,” said Norm Parker, director of the powerhouse Georgia Stars AAU team.

There are some big-picture reasons. The Jackets’ NCAA tournament drought is now at nine years, and, at least judging by Tech’s 27-37 record in the past two years, it would be easy to conclude Tech isn’t close to getting back. Parker said that “absolutely” is a factor.

“Kids look at that – sure they do,” Parker said. “We all look at that.”

Pastner has wanted to play a faster (and more attractive) style, but, given the team’s offensive limitations, has chosen a slower tempo and a scratch-and-claw approach. From a recruiting standpoint, it puts Tech in a tough situation, said Norcross High coach Jesse McMillan, whose team routinely produces elite prospects.

“From a kid’s standpoint, who may just be watching highlights or not looking at the game a certain way, they may not understand the limitations that coaches have had to work with the last couple years,” McMillan said.

The NCAA investigation looming over Tech, even though Pastner wasn’t named in the notice of allegations, can’t help, either, nor the fact that it has extended longer than most expected.

But, in the finer details, Pastner seems to have been unable to finish for a variety of unrelated reasons, and a look at four prospects who made official visits last fall illustrates that. Tech worked hard to cultivate a relationship with Watson, an athletic, high-scoring guard from Buford High rated in the top 100 in the 2019 class (247Sports Composite). As a local product, he could have put a stamp of endorsement on Tech and sent a message to other metro Atlanta prospects.

“I don’t know how they could have recruited him any harder than they did,” said Parker, for whose Stars team Watson played.

Parker and many others expected Watson would commit to Tech, but Oklahoma State won the derby. Not a small factor – Cowboys coach Mike Boynton is Watson’s cousin. Parker acknowledged that Watson may have wanted to leave the state, but asked if he would have ended up at Tech if not for Boynton’s family tie, Parker answered, “Absolutely.”

Robinson, a center from Los Angeles rated No. 199 in the class, chose between Tech and Fresno State. He went with proximity.

“I thought Georgia Tech was a great situation for Orlando, but at the end of the day, I’m not Orlando’s mom and dad,” said Lamar Bigby, Robinson’s AAU coach.

Beran, a forward from Richmond, Va., had everything Tech coaches wanted – academically minded and a perimeter shooter who could also rebound, but not so overwhelming a prospect that the likes of Duke and North Carolina would snatch him away. Tech also was among the first power-conference schools to offer Beran last summer and begin developing a relationship, another hallmark of Pastner’s recruiting strategy.

Beran enjoyed his official visit to Tech early last fall, connecting with Jackets coaches and players.

“They have a great group of guys over there,” Beran said.

Alas, Beran’s next official visit was to Northwestern. There, he felt an even stronger connection with the Wildcats players and, while he told himself he wouldn’t commit on the spot, he committed on the spot. If not for Northwestern, Beran said, he could have been a Jacket.

“I’m kind of under the impression, what’s meant to be is meant to be,” Beran said. “Everything felt right up in Evanston (Ill.).”

Tech had tough luck with another blue-chipper, point guard Boogie Ellis of San Diego. Ellis, whose stock skyrocketed last summer, thought enough of Tech to spend one of his five official visits there, but Duke and North Carolina jumped in late. Ellis, unsurprisingly, went with Duke.

The coaches interviewed didn’t find fault with Pastner. Parker called him “an excellent young coach.” McMillan, at Norcross, said that “the staff works just as hard as everyone else and is just as persistent and visible as any other staff.”

Del Harris – Beran’s high-school and AAU coach (not the former Lakers coach) – called Pastner humble and down to earth and said that “I can’t say enough about him.” Bigby, who has known Pastner for years, said that he can get the job done at Tech if given time.

“The shoe’s got to drop just right for you sometimes,” Parker said. “When you’re recruiting those kids, sometimes it doesn’t just happen that way.”

Once again, Pastner knows all about it.

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