Josh Pastner evaluates Georgia Tech program going into seventh season

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner gestures from the sideline during the ACC college basketball game between the Miami Hurricanes and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on January 29th, 2022 at Hank McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner gestures from the sideline during the ACC college basketball game between the Miami Hurricanes and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on January 29th, 2022 at Hank McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series examining the current state of athletic programs at Georgia Tech. Today’s installment focuses on men’s basketball.

The idea that Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner thought that his team could have made the Final Four this past season might seem fanciful, particularly given that the Yellow Jackets’ final record was 12-20.

That, however, was after the basketball gods, who had opened a path for Tech’s magical run to its first NCAA Tournament since 2010 and first ACC title since 1993, withdrew their favor from Pastner and his team. First, Moses Wright and Jose Alvarado chose to relinquish their extra season of eligibility and turn professional.

Considering, in particular, Alvarado’s success as a rookie with the New Orleans Pelicans, it may seem fanciful that he might have contemplated returning to Tech. However, the reality is that he waited until the final day that he could withdraw from the draft to make his final decision.

Picture Alvarado applying his gifts at the college level along with the reigning ACC player of the year (had Wright also decided to return) along with every other core member of the 2020-21 team.

Instead, Wright and Alvarado turned pro, and with them went Pastner’s grandest aspirations for the 2021-22 season – a Final Four appearance, which would have been the third in team history.

“Once those two left, I knew we were going to try to restart, in a sense,” Pastner said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

That was only part of the bump that Pastner tried to negotiate last offseason. Not only did Alvarado and Wright leave, but they both took time in making their decisions – neither of which Pastner begrudged. Regardless, the time that both took hampered Pastner’s ability to recruit their potential replacements out of the transfer portal last offseason. Tech did procure guard Deivon Smith – a key piece for the future – from the portal. But despite the notoriety of an ACC title, efforts to land an experienced upperclassman were futile, as prospects looked elsewhere without knowing Alvarado or Wright’s plans to return.

Tech’s fortunes took another hit in the preseason when guard Bubba Parham, who was expected to be a key contributor, suffered a knee injury that limited him to two games.

“I think overall, we probably left anywhere between four and six games on the table that not having Bubba cost us,” Pastner said.

For those who have paid attention to Pastner’s team, his explanations are not new. And, arguably not complete. For instance, one reason that Pastner was left with a relatively inexperienced roster outside of guard Michael Devoe and forwards Jordan Usher and Khalid Moore was that he had only two scholarship juniors – guard Kyle Sturdivant and center Rodney Howard – and neither played significant minutes as sophomores in part because of Pastner’s understandable strategy of relying heavily on Alvarado and Wright.

Regardless, the juxtaposition of the past two seasons helps illustrate how Pastner’s tenure has unfolded as he goes into his seventh season at Tech. When he has had the pieces – when he has reaped the fruits of his “get old and stay old” plan – he has been able to put together teams that have achieved varying degrees of success. And when he hasn’t, Tech has taken its place near the bottom of the ACC. Given time, Pastner’s teams can get old. Staying old has proved a different matter.

“I think that the goal is to be there (in the NCAA Tournament),” Pastner said. “I think, obviously, for Georgia Tech to do that, you’ve got to get old and stay old. When you’re not old, that takes a little bit away from you.”

The core of his first team, aside from then-freshman Josh Okogie, was older, and reached the NIT finals after being picked to finish second to last in the ACC. The next two teams were hit by injuries and young, as players such as Alvarado and Devoe were thrown into the fire, and the records reflected it.

With the crew of center James Banks, Alvarado, Devoe and Wright finding their footing, the Jackets won six of their final seven in 2019-20 to finish 17-14 overall and 11-9 in the ACC, the team’s first winning record in league play since the 2003-04 season, when Tech reached the national championship game. The 2019-20 team might have had a shot at an NIT bid had a) the school not self-imposed a postseason ban as part of its punishment for recruiting violations; b) COVID-19 prematurely ended the season.

That led to Tech’s ACC title season in 2021, achieving Pastner’s goal of getting Tech into the tournament by his fifth season and earning a contract extension from athletic director Todd Stansbury through the 2025-26 season. That preceded last year’s nosedive, which was defined by a series of defeats in which the Jackets held leads before going on minutes-long scoring droughts. Tech’s 12-20 record was the poorest in Pastner’s tenure.

“I think it’s building in the right direction, but building a program is not always just a linear climb,” ACC Network analyst Dalen Cuff said. “You have the ups and downs, and last year was a little step back. Can they take a step forward? The thing is, you can’t have one, two, three steps back. Then you have a problem. Then you may be out of a job.”

It would appear that Tech is positioned to again climb upward in the standings, led by the likes of guards Deebo Coleman, Smith and Sturdivant and Howard in the post. With Devoe and Usher now pursuing the NBA and Moore (Fordham), Parham (Samford) and Saba Gigiberia (San Francisco) gone as transfers, Tech returns 44% of its scoring and 54% of its minutes. Pastner is excited about the group.

“They’ve got a good nucleus of guys,” Cuff said. “They’ve got some good guard play, a little bit of experience.”

Without an obvious star such as Devoe – the leading returning scorer is Sturdivant at 7.6 points per game – Pastner said that “the star of our team has got to be the team.”

Howard, who averaged 10.2 points and 6.3 rebounds in his final nine games (his season numbers were 6.5 and 5.1), will need to continue that progress.

“I think it’s important that Rodney, at the end of the year, is in the discussion for most improved player (in the ACC),” Pastner said.

Pastner will count on two transfers. Forward Ja’von Franklin (6-foot-7, 220 pounds) was an All-Sun Belt pick at South Alabama, where he averaged 12.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.

“Ja’von is a really good athlete,” Pastner said. “I think he’s a good passer. I think he plays hard, he’s quick off the floor, really athletic. Really good team guy.”

Guard Lance Terry (6-2, 180) averaged 14.3 points per game for Gardner-Webb last season, making 35% of his 3-point shots. Terry is a graduate of the Heritage School in Newnan.

“Just very dependable, in the right spot at all times,” Pastner said. “Knows how to play, really good downhill, great first step.”

After six seasons, Pastner’s overall record is 94-96 with a league mark of 47-64. His predecessor Brian Gregory’s record over his five seasons was 76-86 overall and 27-61 in the ACC.

“We want to compete every year to be in the tournament,” Pastner said.

To this point, he’s achieved that goal three out of six years.

“This is a really big year for them,” Cuff said. “We’ll see how it goes.”