On Tuesday, Georgia Tech men’s basketball coach Josh Pastner returned to the site of the greatest triumph of his seven-year tenure with the Yellow Jackets. It was at the Greensboro Coliseum in 2021 that Pastner led Tech to the ACC title, its first since 1993.
Pastner returned under far different circumstances as the Jackets began the conference tournament as the No. 13 seed, facing No. 12-seed Florida State. Two years ago, he was being hailed for developing the Jackets into a team that earned its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2010. This week, after a regular season in which the Jackets have executed a remarkable late turnaround but still have finished among the league’s bottom three teams for the second year in a row, Pastner’s future at Tech is uncertain.
Were athletic director J Batt to make a change, the decision could happen within days of Tech’s final game in the tournament, barring the Jackets pulling a historic shocker and winning the title.
“Like we do with all of our programs and coaches, we’ll sit down with Josh after the conclusion of the season and evaluate the year as a whole,” Batt said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “In the meantime, our full focus is on supporting the team as it looks to have a successful week in Greensboro.”
The case for dismissing Pastner stems largely from the team’s performance in the past two seasons. The vision that Pastner set for the program – “get old and stay old” – was successful by developing and then winning with Jose Alvarado and Moses Wright, the pillars of the ACC championship team. Winning by staying old after their departure has proved elusive.
In the two seasons since the ACC title, Pastner had a 26-37 overall record going into the tournament, including a 14-17 regular-season mark this season. While the Jackets’ season isn’t complete, no Tech coach has had a lower winning percentage over back-to-back seasons (.413) since Dwane Morrison in his final two seasons (1979-80 and 1980-81), though former coaches Brian Gregory and Paul Hewitt came close.
This season, the Jackets lost nine consecutive ACC games – the team’s longest losing streak since the 1980-81 season – with seven of the nine by double digits. By the NCAA’s NET ranking system, Tech was 176th as of Tuesday morning, ahead of only seven power-conference schools. The Jackets’ KenPom rating was 166th, ahead of eight power-conference schools.
It’s possible that Tech could end the season as one of only two power-conference schools to finish outside of the top 150 teams in KenPom’s ratings both last season and this season.
Season ticket sales were down this season, and average home attendance (4,713) dropped slightly. At multiple home games, 8,600-seat McCamish Pavilion appeared less than half full. Much of the fan base appears ready for Batt to make a change.
“To be honest, I feel like Josh and his staff have done a good job,” Tech great and ACC analyst Brian Oliver told the AJC. “Has it been unfortunate that some of the wins have not fallen their way? It is very unfortunate. Do I understand (the possibility of a coaching change)? Absolutely, because that’s the lay of the land.”
Pastner often has asserted that the prospects for the 2021-22 team were affected by Alvarado and Wright waiting until late in the pre-draft process to make their stay-or-go decisions, by which point the best players in the transfer portal had committed elsewhere. This year, competing in a transfer market where competitors could offer the potential for five- and six-figure deals available through collectives but Tech could not, Pastner again did not land the most sought-after candidates. (He also did not sign any impact freshmen.)
Batt has thrown his weight behind a collective at Tech to create name, image and likeness deals to Jackets athletes, the existence of which likely would have helped Pastner had it been available last offseason.
“I’m going to put that one on the prior AD,” Steve Zelnak, a major donor to the athletic department, said in reference to former AD Todd Stansbury. “Josh was trying and wasn’t getting any help.”
Looking at the first five seasons of his tenure, Pastner led his first team – picked 14th in the ACC before the season – to the NIT finals and then finished under .500 in the next two seasons as players such as Alvarado, Wright and Michael Devoe matured. In his fourth season, with the Jackets projected to finish 12th, Pastner’s team finished 17-14 and fifth in the ACC with its first winning league record since the 2003-04 season. That season largely was forgotten as a) Tech accepted the NCAA’s postseason ban for recruiting violations; b) the pandemic began days after the Jackets’ final game.
In the fifth season, Tech won the ACC and posted a second consecutive winning record in the ACC, the latter of which hadn’t been achieved since a three-year run that culminated in the Jackets’ first Final Four trip in 1990.
However, it’s the inability to be more competitive since then that has brought Pastner’s future in question. Pastner gets credit for being a well-liked member of the athletic department whose enthusiasm for Tech can’t be questioned. He has served his role as an ambassador for Tech well.
And, with the sophomore trio of Miles Kelly, Jalon Moore and Deebo Coleman, there’s the hope for a core that could lead the Jackets into the postseason next season, particularly if NIL help were present. Pitt and N.C. State, which finished 13th and 15th last season in the ACC, both took advantage of the portal to both reach 20 wins.
“I’d like to see this Georgia Tech team and what they are becoming come back – we’ve got to get more players in the portal – to see what they could do under Josh for another year,” Oliver said.
On the court, the team’s resurgence in the final quarter of the regular season speaks to his ability to find solutions and keep his team together. On the other hand, the fact that the Jackets won six of the final eight regular-season games – following a Pastner trend to improve as the season goes along – does raise the question why this team couldn’t have put this together sooner.
Given the coaching change with football, Batt likely would prefer to avoid a transition with the second-most visible program in the department. But it’s conceivable that the state of the team over the past two years and waning interest could compel him to act. Few would be surprised if it were to happen.
Part of the calculus for Batt would be the risk/reward of hiring a new coach versus retaining Pastner. While enthusiasm for bringing back Pastner likely would not be high among the fan base and not help ticket sales, Batt would probably have to go the route of hiring a mid-major coach or an up-and-coming assistant, which could work or could fail. Further, there would be an added cost in buying out Pastner (around $2.5 million) and potentially paying a buyout for a new coach, not a small matter for an athletic department that has spent big on the football staff. But, on the other hand, if Batt were to retain Pastner and bank on improved performance, fan interest and support surely would fall even further if Pastner couldn’t deliver.
“I have confidence in the AD we have because I think he’s really, really good,” Zelnak said. “He’ll make, in my view, the right call. I’m just going to be totally supportive of whatever he chooses to do.”
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