Breaking good: Georgia Tech is relevant again

Georgia Tech’s breakthrough season nearly was broken at its beginning. On the nights before and after Thanksgiving, the Yellow Jackets lost at home to Georgia State and Mercer, yielding 206 points over 100 minutes. (The GSU loss lasted four overtimes.) After the Mercer game, which saw the Bears make 12 of 25 3-pointers, Tech’s coaches sat in their locker room until 4 a.m., asking themselves the darkest of questions.

This was Year 5 under Josh Pastner. Until now, Year 1 – which ended with a 32-point loss to TCU in the NIT final – had been the highlight. The Jackets hadn’t yet reached the NCAA Tournament under this coach; they had, however, been placed on probation and hit with a postseason ban by the NCAA. Pastner had spent much time and effort trying to explain things away, but a fifth consecutive season of missing out might have meant the end of his line.

Nine days after the Mercer game, Tech met Kentucky, the nation’s winningest program, at State Farm Arena. Tech won by 17. Pastner’s explanation: He’d been so worried about COVID-19 that he hadn’t run his team through full-contact practices in preseason, but after starting 0-2 while guarding nobody he was left with no alternative. At the time, nobody knew this Kentucky team would be the worst since 1927. All we knew is that Pastner’s team had won a game it had to win and had looked good doing it.

Three months later, this coach and his Jackets are bound for the Big Dance. They haven’t suffered anything close to a bad loss since November, unless you count losing at Duke – which hasn’t been itself, either – as bad. They’ve beaten North Carolina, Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech, all certain to make the NCAA field. They beat Duke for the first time since 2010, which marked the last time the Jackets took part in March Madness. A program that hasn’t had a bye in the ACC tournament since 2005 will have a double-bye this time.

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The Jackets would have had a bye had they played in the ACC Tournament last year, but they decided at the last minute to accept their postseason ban. Given that everybody’s postseason ended March 12, that proved a sagacious choice. The NCAA moved last month – the NCAA moves in glacial ways – to soften some of the Jackets’ remaining sanctions. Bottom line: As we speak, Tech basketball looks better than it has since the 2004-05 season, when Paul Hewitt’s team was coming off its run to the NCAA title game. Pastner has done what he was hired to do. He has put Tech hoops back on the March map.

And he has done it in a way nobody figured he would. Mike Bobinski, then Tech’s athletic director, hired Pastner because he believed him to be a strong recruiter. Over his first five years, Pastner signed only one 4-star prospect – Michael Devoe – and no Georgia high schooler above a 3-star. Pastner has remade Tech, and he has also remade himself. He has coached the heck out of everyone he has landed, be they signees or transfers. Jose Alvarado and Moses Wright could be the ACC’s two best players. Alvarado was a 3-star signee; Wright, as Pastner misses no chance to remind us, was a no-star.

Even better news: The 2021 signing class is rated No. 17 nationally, making it Pastner’s best by far. It includes wings Miles Kelly, from Lilburn by way of Hargrave Academy, and Dallan Coleman of Florida. ESPN ranks the latter as the nation’s 32nd-best prospect. No more no-stars for this program.

Still better: Over the past two seasons, Tech is 22-15 in ACC play. It’s the first time since 1989 and 1990 the Jackets have gone plus-.500 in conference play in consecutive seasons. From 1985 through 2010, Tech reached the NCAA Tournament 15 times, the Final Four twice. This is not a program without history. Over the past decade, it was easy to wonder if the ACC – now including eight migrants from the old Big East, Syracuse and Louisville among them – had grown too big for the Institute. Doesn’t seem too big anymore, does it?

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Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner watches from the sideline in the second half of a game at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Saturday, February 27, 2021. Georgia Tech won 84-77 over Syracuse. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner watches from the sideline in the second half of a game at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Saturday, February 27, 2021. Georgia Tech won 84-77 over Syracuse. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Five years ago, we wondered if Pastner could recruit enough to right a program gone wrong. Today we ask: What happens when a program reborn starts attracting better and better players? (Stop me if you’ve heard this, but the state of Georgia is fertile ground.) What happens when Pastner can simply point to the scoreboard and say, “We’re winning again”?

More very good things, you’d have to guess. Some of those might arrive over the next month. Nobody in any bracket will be happy to see the Jackets coming. They’re going dancing. They could dance a nice long while.

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