As Jackets open season, Josh Pastner looks (far) ahead

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner gave an indication of what lies ahead this season at a Tuesday news conference. That’s when the third-year coach repeatedly tried to shift the conversation to next season.

“This is a big year for development because this core group is going to move forward with us as we continue to move forward,” Pastner said. “This is really the foundation and setting the tone of the program in terms of moving forward to move the needle.”

In other words, don’t count on much from the needle this season, which begins Friday night with the opener against Lamar at McCamish Pavilion. A team that is thin in the frontcourt and will rely on a backcourt with a lot of inexperienced pieces will be fighting uphill.

“I know they’re going to compete, they’re going to play hard,” Pastner said. “We’re going to put a good product on the floor. I don’t know on our record or anything like that. I do know we’ll play the right way.”

Tech was picked to finish 13th in the 15-team ACC by media covering the league. The basketball metrics website KenPom projects the Yellow Jackets to finish 14-17 overall and 5-13 in the ACC, which would be right around where they finished last season (13-19, 6-12). Sports Illustrated ranked the Jackets as the No. 127 team in the country, 14th in the ACC, just after Radford and just ahead of Penn.

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Is it conceivable that the Jackets pull off a surprise season such as Pastner’s first, when they faced similar forecasts and ended the season in the NIT finals, or at least that they outperform projections? It’s not out of the question.

Most likely, 1) big man Abdoulaye Gueye would have to make huge strides in scoring consistency and avoiding foul trouble, 2) highly touted freshman guard Michael Devoe would have to be a producer on the level of Josh Okogie in his freshman season, 3) maybe guards Curtis Haywood (coming back from a season-ending shin injury) and Shembari Phillips (first season on the court after transferring from Tennessee) provide scoring punch from the perimeter, 4) one of the two sophomore forwards – Moses Wright or Evan Cole – becomes a dependable, ACC-caliber stretch-4 forward and 5) after losing defensive stalwart Ben Lammers, Pastner’s new defensive scheme gives teams as much trouble as it did two years ago.

Also, 6) it probably wouldn’t hurt if transfer James Banks, who hopes to receive immediate eligibility after transferring from Texas in part for hardship reasons, were cleared to play.

“I think we’re going to shock a lot of people this year,” Cole said. “We’re picked to be like, second to last in the ACC, and I think the big thing from last year to this year is I think we’re going to play better as a team.”

But, the more likely outcome is that the Jackets, with a roster that is loaded with seven freshmen and sophomores and will have to replace 56 percent of the scoring and 48 percent of the rebounding from last year’s team, will take their share of lumps.

Pastner does seem genuinely hopeful about what he has. Freshman forward Kristian Sjolund has shooting touch from the perimeter, is a gifted passer and has “a real chance to be really, really good,” Pastner said, although he may redshirt because of his defensive shortcomings.

Devoe showed himself to be a “high-level guy,” in Pastner’s words, in workouts before he sustained a toe injury that sidelined him for six weeks in the preseason. (He may play Friday in a limited role.) He is confident that point guard Jose Alvarado will be better, particularly on defense, after starting the first 25 games of the season before a season-ending elbow injury.

He believes Alvarado and Devoe will form as good a backcourt as there is in the ACC. Next season.

It’s part of the mantra that he has stuck on repeat, the path he envisions to get the Jackets back to the NCAA Tournament, a destination they’ve not visited since 2010: “Get old and stay old.”  

“That’s going to happen in another year and two, and that’s why this is a great year for our guys because they’re going to get great opportunity to progress and improve on the floor,” Pastner said.

Pastner and the Jackets appear to be facing a year of investment. The profit may have to wait.

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