Josh Pastner’s story of Georgia Tech’s start last season, its relevance to this year

Josh Pastner’s plans had gone haywire. In a season weighted with expectations of an NCAA Tournament berth, Georgia Tech had begun the season with most distressing results – a quadruple-overtime loss to Georgia State followed by an 83-73 loss to Mercer in which the Bears led by as many as 19 points late in the game.

Pastner’s team was 0-2 in a shortened season, meaning each loss counted more heavily. Pastner’s plan to limit contact in practices to reduce the likelihood of players having to sit out because of COVID-19 contact tracing had blown up in his face. The offense, utilizing Rodney Howard at center, was not working and needed to be overhauled.

And, then, on the morning of Nov. 28, the day after the Mercer loss, Pastner was informed that forward Moses Wright needed to be quarantined for 14 days because of contact tracing. After all of his effort to keep players safe, his star forward was going to have to miss two games (or so it appeared) – against Kentucky and Nebraska – with the team already 0-2.

There are few people more positive and optimistic than Pastner. But, after home losses to in-state mid-major opponents and two power-conference matchups coming, he felt what he called “an enormous amount” of pressure at the start of his fifth season. If the Yellow Jackets failed to make the tournament, it would place his employment at Tech – as well as that of everyone on his staff – in jeopardy, a reality that Pastner recognized.

“Look, you’re in that business,” Pastner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week, telling for the first time the story of a hugely critical week in his tenure. “The standard, the expectation when I took the job was to get Georgia Tech back to the NCAA Tournament in five years. That was the job. That was the mission.”

It all worked out, of course. Wright was able to play, the Jackets upset Kentucky at State Farm Arena and then went on the road to beat Nebraska and return to .500. By season’s end, Tech was cutting down the nets at the ACC Tournament, Wright was the ACC player of the year (Jose Alvarado was ACC defensive player of the year) and the Jackets made the NCAA Tournament to fulfill Pastner’s five-year vision.

It has relevance this season, as Pastner’s team is again trying to find itself as it advances through the non-conference schedule. The Jackets play No. 10 USC on Saturday in Phoenix in the Jerry Colangelo Classic. Tech is 5-4 and on a three-game losing streak. Pastner has been trying to establish a rotation, develop inexperienced players, weather the loss of Wright and Alvarado and wait for the return of guard Bubba Parham from knee surgery for a torn meniscus.

“We just need time to develop and get guys better,” Pastner said. “It’s just going to take time.”

Repeatedly, Pastner has affirmed his belief in his sixth Jackets team, saying Tech will be competitive in the ACC by season’s end. That was the case in the 2019-20 season, when the Jackets were 8-11 overall and 3-6 in the ACC before winning nine of their last 12 to finish fifth in the ACC. It happened again last season after the season-opening losses to Georgia State and Mercer. At 9-8 overall and 5-6 in the ACC, the Jackets won their next eight to finish fourth in the regular season and win their first league title since 1993.

Pastner is ready to lead the Jackets through rough waters again.

Responding to adversity “is not easy to do,” Pastner said. “But we did it last year, we’ve done it in the past. Our teams have been good at that, to be able to respond.”

The Jackets showed it last season. After the loss to Mercer, Pastner met with his coaching staff in the locker room until about 4 a.m. (the game had ended at about 9:45 p.m.). trying to figure out answers. The first was to re-institute contact in practice, even if it carried a greater risk for contract tracing. Beyond that, Pastner said, “no idea was off the table.”

The staff landed on going to a smaller lineup with Wright playing at center instead of power forward.

“It was a humongous change,” Pastner said. “We had to change our entire offense to figure it out.”

And then, hours after the meeting ended, Pastner was told that Wright had been flagged by contact tracing and, following the guidance at the time, would be quarantined for two weeks. Pastner recalled taking his family to North Atlanta High the day after the Mercer loss to exercise on the school’s track. Pastner ran while his wife, Kerri, and their daughters walked. While he tried to affect a positive demeanor, “internally, I was sick to my stomach,” he said.

That Monday, Pastner had an appointment to speak to Tech’s ticket office and athletic-department fundraisers about talking points for the season that they could share with fans and donors. The meeting had been scheduled before the season began, presumably with the expectation that the Jackets would be 2-0.

“That was hard,” Pastner said. “I mean, you’re trying to put on a positive face during not a positive time.”

Meanwhile, Pastner was facing the possibility of playing Kentucky and Nebraska without Wright and then going to powerhouse Florida State.

Said Pastner, “I was thinking, like, could we start 0-5 on the season?”

That week, Pastner had his team practice twice a day during the final-exam period as coaches put in the new offense. However, they were having to do it without a key part of the plan, Wright, as he was in quarantine. It was during that week, though, that Tech received an enormous break from, of all places, the CDC.

On Dec. 2, a Wednesday, the agency announced an adjustment of its quarantine guidance, which the NCAA was following. While it continued to encourage a 14-day quarantine for anyone exposed to someone with COVID-19, it also offered two alternatives, including a seven-day quarantine if the exposed person tested negative and didn’t have symptoms.

The ACC approved the new guidance on Saturday night, less than 24 hours before the Jackets were to play Kentucky. That night, Wright came out of quarantine to practice with the coaches and try to learn his new role.

“It was unbelievable,” Pastner said. “The good Lord was looking over us on that one.”

With the benefit of one walk-through practice that Sunday, Wright and the Jackets plowed through Kentucky (79-62) and then took care of the Cornhuskers three days later. Able to play because of the CDC’s revised guidance, Wright combined for 34 points, 15 rebounds, six assists, five blocks, three steals and one turnover.

Tech ran into trouble later, losing five of seven games in ACC play, but Pastner had steered his team away from the brink of disaster.

Asked where he placed the win over Kentucky among his most important wins, Pastner answered, “It’s right there about as high as can be.”

In hindsight, Pastner can even appreciate the losses to Georgia State and Mercer. Had the Jackets won, Pastner said he might not have felt compelled to make the changes to the scheme and practice structure that ultimately enabled the Jackets to win the ACC.

“At the time, you’re thinking the sky is falling in a sense,” he said. “But it just shows you, everything is deeper than it actually looks on the surface.”

Pastner is hoping that, once again, the trials of the non-conference schedule will bear fruit when the Jackets begin the bulk of ACC play, beginning Dec. 29 at Syracuse. The Jackets need to get a better handle on turnovers and avoid the lapses that have been costly in the three losses.

“I definitely don’t think we’re anywhere near our ceiling,” forward Jordan Usher said. “I think there’s a lot of times we might have three of us on the court on the same page and the other two might be a page behind. Coach has been helping us change some things so that we can all be on the same page.”

Said Pastner, “I love our team. I think we’re going to be really good. We just need to keep getting better.”

From a record standpoint, it hasn’t helped that the Jackets’ past three games (all losses) were against Wisconsin, North Carolina and LSU, who as of Friday were all in the top 40 in KenPom and a combined 27-4. USC is 11-0 and was 20th in KenPom as of Friday afternoon.

The Jackets will be at home next week against Georgia State and Alabama A&M. After a short Christmas break, they’ll travel to Syracuse. Perhaps Tech is in the midst of another trial that, through determination and improvement, will turn out well again and be fodder for another teachable moment. Pastner’s daughters know well the lesson of Tech’s 0-2 start.

Said Pastner, “They’re like, Daddy, you say that every single time we drive by the track.”