A year after winning the ACC, Georgia Tech is back to Tuesdays

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner cuts the net as he celebrates his teams 80-75 win over Florida State in the basketball Championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Saturday, March 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner cuts the net as he celebrates his teams 80-75 win over Florida State in the basketball Championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Saturday, March 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

After Georgia Tech lost on the opening day of the 2019 ACC tournament, Josh Pastner said, “We’ve got to get off Tuesdays,” that being the day reserved for the 10-through-15 seeds of college basketball’s most famous league. The Yellow Jackets didn’t participate in the 2020 event, choosing to accept its one-year postseason ban – though they would have started on Wednesday, having finished fifth in the conference.

Last year Tech got off Tuesday, and Wednesday, too. As the No. 4 seed, the Jackets received a double bye. When a Virginia player tested positive for COVID, the semifinal became a third bye. Tech beat Florida State in the final, winning the ACC tournament for the first time since a snowy weekend in Charlotte in 1993. After a wretched decade, Tech was back in the high life.

Though not for long. Moses Wright tested positive after the Jackets snipped the nets in Greensboro. Minus Wright, Tech was one-and-done in the NCAA tournament. Still, Pastner’s program had its long-sought breakthrough. The Jackets avoided ACC Tuesday and went dancing the next week. Happy days were here again.

Not much since has gone right. Tech beat Georgia for the first time under Pastner, but that was only the second of the Bulldogs’ 25 losses. The reigning league champ will begin ACC tournament play on Tuesday as the 14th of 15 seeds. One year after going 11-6 in conderence play, Tech went 5-15. Four victories came against teams that also play Tuesday.

The Jackets were picked to finish 10th by the assembled media at the ACC’s preseason convocation. That seemed low for a defending champ, but the losses of Wright and Jose Alvarado, both of whom played four Tech seasons, changed everything. Owing to COVID, the two could have chosen to play a fifth collegiate season. Neither did. Neither was drafted by an NBA team, though both are under NBA contracts.

Pastner won the ACC tournament, which only Bobby Cremins had done at Tech. That’s a big-time achievement. Pastner’s next team lost its opener at home to Miami (Ohio), which went 8-12 in Mid-American play. Going by Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the Jackets’ best victory came against No. 81 Clemson. It’s their only win against a top 100 opponent.

Even without Wright and Alvarado, Tech wasn’t without talent. Michael Devoe is third among ACC players in scoring. Jordan Usher is 15th in scoring and 14th in rebounding. (Personal aside: I really like Usher as a player.) It’s hard to imagine a team with those two going 12-19 over a regular season. This one did.

This is Pastner’s sixth season at Tech. None of his previous teams lost more than 19 games. None won fewer than 13. He received a three-year extension after last season. He’s under contract through 2025-2026. His record at Tech is 94-95. His teams are 47-64 in regular-season ACC play.

A lousy sixth season doesn’t invalidate an excellent fifth season. It does remind us that coaching in a 15-team ACC is no easy gig. (Neither was coaching in an eight-team ACC, when there were no easy games.) Last season’s Jackets fulfilled Pastner’s wish for his team to get old and stay old. Its five top players were third- or fourth-year collegians. Alas, it’s the “staying” part that keeps getting tougher.

COVID granted every college player an extra year. That’s not apt to happen again. The transfer portal is rendering the sport a blur. That could work to Tech’s advantage. This state produces a slew of good players. Many of those who signed elsewhere are often looking to come home. Five current Jackets are transfers; all played high school ball in Georgia.

The portal, however, runs both ways. How many players want to join – or stick with – a losing team? We know Pastner can coach guys up, having nurtured Wright from no-star-recruit to ACC player of the year. What we still don’t know is if Pastner’s program can settle as an upper-tier member of its league

This isn’t to say Tech should be looking for a new coach. If you win the ACC tournament, you earn the benefit of every doubt. But the ACC is in the early stages of massive change. Roy Williams is gone. Mike Krzyzewski is leaving. Louisville is seeking yet another head coach. Leonard Hamilton, Jim Boeheim and Jim Larranaga are on the high side of 70.

Pastner is 44. For him and his Jackets, the years ahead could be quite good. Maybe this season was never going to be great, but it shouldn’t have been this awful.