If there’s an NCAA Tournament, Pastner, Tech better be in it

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Here we are already, about to embark – tentatively – upon the fifth season of the Josh Pastner basketball flume ride at Georgia Tech. Time flies. And it’s demanding results, as well.

Oh, the adventures we’ve had along the way.

In Year 1, there was a long visit to the NIT, the Stephen Baldwin of the postseason family.

There came a cautionary tale about the cost of toxic friendships. It went something like this, in brief: Pastner leaves the door open and in slinks an old acquaintance named Ron Bell, a fellow a little too eager to please, an NCAA investigator’s uncontested layup. Bell and the coach fall out. Then Bell sets about trying to do to Pastner what Glenn Close did to that poor bunny in the movie “Fatal Attraction.”

And then there was one of the more fortuitous postseason tournament bans ever. Sure, the NCAA banished Tech for its sins. But then the postseason was called on account of coronavirus. Tech didn’t miss a thing. It served its sentence while the entire rest of the world was under house arrest.

And now this:

“This summer they didn’t call me Coach, they called me the COVID security guard,” Pastner said Tuesday during some light media calisthenics with the start of the season less than a month away.

“All summer, through the summer access and fall, I rarely coached. I was spending more time making sure guys were entering and exiting the facility the right way. Making sure they weren’t loitering in the locker room, meaning they get a shower and leave. Making sure things were cleaned. I did less coaching than I’ve ever done in the history of my life this summer and in the fall. I was spending time making sure no one crossed paths, things were clean, getting guys out of the locker room.”

The coach even instituted his own COVID-19 version of a sudsy shot clock. “When our workout was done, I’d go in and tell them, did you wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water?” he said.

More serious basketball-related activities have begun at Tech’s Zelnak Center with a scheduled season opener against Georgia State looming (Nov. 25). Although the coach is really nervous about letting his players get too close to one another, which can be a big problem when practicing the pick-and-roll and boxing out. There are no Zoom conferences for the loose-ball scramble drill.

“One (coronavirus-infected) guy can just shut you down,” Pastner said.

Against this backdrop of trepidation and uncertainty, Pastner enters a real bookmark season for him. The five-year mark provides a scenic overlook on the progress of the coach and his program. Certain promises were made that Tech would see dramatic improvement five years in, and none of Pastner’s assurances came with the asterisk of coronavirus.

Pastner really likes this team, as he’ll tell any gathering of two or more. As well he should. Returning is the core of last season’s bunch that won six of its final seven games and became the first Tech team to finish over .500 in the ACC since 2004.

Behind Michael Devoe and Jose Alvarado, the Yellow Jackets are an experienced guard-driven team in a guard-driven game. Five of Tech’s top six scorers are back for another shot.

This cake already is more than half-baked. So, you figure the wealth of experience should count for something even more in a season that will lack the developmental steps of full, unfettered practice as well as exhibition games. The conference schedule hasn’t even been put in place yet, casting more shadows of uncertainty upon the season. The prospect of whole teams being disabled by the virus for weeks at a time is tangible, real.

“Can we get to 27 games (Tech’s scheduled allotment)? Even playing 27 games would be one remarkable accomplishment this year,” Pastner said.

As difficult as it may be to attach expectations to a season greased with so many issues, it is nonetheless put-up time for Pastner. Tech has stuck with him through the tough, transitional seasons and through the Ron Bell embarrassment. The time for reward has come.

The measure of this season is obvious, even if nothing else about 2020-21 is. If there is an NCAA Tournament, Tech simply has to be in it.

As an accommodation to uncommon times, ACC coaches unanimously floated the uncommon idea of all 346 Division I teams making the next tournament. But that was torpedoed by the NCAA at-large. Tech will have to earn an invitation the usual way.

“The next step for us as a team and a program, we want to get to the NCAA tournament. That is the objective. I think we’re good enough to do it,” Pastner said.

“I say that today. There are a lot of things that have to go well.”

Such as, he said, avoiding a microscopic threat. “We’re not able to overcome it if half our team is out with COVID and we’re missing two weeks of action.”

As legitimate as some of the hedges and qualifiers on this fifth season may be for Pastner, nobody wants to contemplate them right now.