Back in the high life: Georgia Tech’s return to eminence

Josh Pastner had coached up, as they say, what he had. Three years into his Georgia Tech leading the men’s basketball program, that was the industry consensus. Still unclear was whether what he had would ever be enough. His first three seasons had yielded one NIT bid, no victories in the ACC Tournament and no NCAA Touranment appearances. They’d also produced some bad press, some of it self-inflicted.

Season 3 ended with yet another Tuesday loss in the ACC tournament. “We’ve got to get off Tuesdays,” he said afterward, meaning the event’s first round, the purview of the proud conference’s lesser lights. Two nights later, Pastner could be spotted, wearing a gold polo shirt, sitting in the end zone at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center by himself as Duke and North Carolina waged an epic quarterfinal. “I’m just trying to see what we have to do to get to Thursday,” he said, smiling ruefully, and there was more woe to come.

The reason this correspondent sought out Pastner in the stands was because The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was reporting that Georgia Tech had received a notice of allegations from the NCAA, the biggest charges involving Ron Bell, whom Pastner had befriended while coaching Memphis and who had followed the coach to Atlanta. This meant Pastner’s Yellow Jackets weren’t just a mediocrity — they were about to become a scrutinized mediocrity, which was worse.

That was March 14, 2019. A bit later, this writer asked, in headline form, what seemed a salient question: “Is Josh Pastner more trouble than he’s worth?”

On March 14, 2021, Pastner and his Jackets awoke in Greensboro, N.C. — this assumes any of them slept — and were to fly to Indianapolis, where Tech will grace its first NCAA Tournament since 2010. Included along with their 34-member traveling party on the charter’s manifest would have been a special guest: the 2021 ACC championship trophy.

Pastner’s team won the nation’s most prestigious conference tournament in grand style Saturday night, forcing favored Florida State into 25 turnovers and turning the steely Seminoles into a flustered mess. So giddy were the Jackets in their moment of arrival that they were assessed a technical foul with one second remaining for premature celebration. (Not that it mattered. Their lead was seven points. They would win 80-75.)

In the immediate aftermath, the irrepressible point guard Jose Alvarado intruded on Pastner’s socially distanced interview with ESPN, screaming, “Coach! You’re a champion, man! You’re an ACC champion!”

Then, having become the central interviewee, Alvarado was asked to describe his feelings. “Oh, man,” he said. “This is why I worked my butt off. A lot of people doubted me. I wasn’t supposed to be in the ACC. This man (pointing to Pastner) took a chance on me. And my teammates: Man, how good are they?”

Perspective: In preseason, Tech was picked by the ACC media to finish ninth in a 15-team conference. Perspective: Even after the Jackets closed their regular season with six consecutive victories to claim the ACC’s No. 4 seed, they didn’t receive a single vote in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Perspective: Alvarado was a 3-star recruit; the ACC is awash with 4- and 5-stars. Perspective: Moses Wright, the newly minted ACC player of the year, was – for the hundred thousandth time, we invoke Pastner’s label – “a zero-star recruit.”

They’re all ACC champions, they and the silky Michael Devoe, the ACC tournament’s MVP, and Jordan Usher, the unsung transfer from USC whose whirling baseline dunk left FSU slack-jawed and put the Jackets over the top. As recently as two weeks ago, Tech wasn’t sure of an NCAA bid, seeing itself listed among the “last four in” in some mock brackets. Turned out they didn’t need an at-large bid. Turned out they’ll begin play in Indiana as the ACC’s automatic qualifier.

This is Tech’s first NCAA tournament since 2010. That was essentially the last gasp of Paul Hewitt, who’d led the Jackets to the 2004 national championship game against UConn. Hewitt succeeded Bobby Cremins, the silver-haired salesman who’d lifted Tech from oblivion to three ACC championships and the 1990 Final Four. Hired to replace Hewitt, Brian Gregory was gone in five years. Hired to replace Gregory, Pastner entered Year 5 having seen his program penalized by the NCAA – the sanctions have since been softened – and go 65-67.

One thing Pastner did have working for him: His team had fulfilled his stated vision of getting old and staying old. In the era of COVID, a senior-spangled roster figured to have an edge over a loose collection of freshmen and transfers. And yet: On the night after Thanksgiving, these seasoned Jackets were 0-2, having lost home games to Georgia State and Mercer.

Pastner and his assistants stayed in their locker room until 4 a.m. after the second loss, wondering if it was time to send out resumes for their next jobs. Said Devoe, speaking early Sunday morning: “It was like the world was ending.”

The Jackets’ next game was against Kentucky. They won by 17 points. The season turned.

Said Alvarado, speaking of starting 0-2: “If somebody had told me you’re going to be in the ACC championship in a few months, I’d have looked at them like they were crazy.”

It’s called March Madness for a reason, and no team will arrive at this NCAA Tournament any hotter than Pastner’s happy band. The Jackets have won eight in a row. They’ve validated themselves and their coach. They believe they can beat anybody, and now they’ll have that chance.

Pastner’s move to keep his team in North Carolina after it finished its regular season at Wake Forest has come up trumps. His players spent a week cloistered in a Greensboro resort, and now they’ll become part of the NCAA’s Indy bubble. Pastner has been maniacal in his emphasis on adhering to COVID protocols, and that held even in sweet victory.

“We’re going to have an ice cream bar when we get back (to the hotel),” he said, “but everyone will have to wear gloves. You can’t scoop it yourself. I’ll make sure of that.”

Then: “But we might even do a little dancing, and we will be throwing sprinkles in the air.”