After one good season, Josh Pastner’s Yellow Jackets back in ‘desperate mode’

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury’s constituents were upset with football coach Geoff Collins after another losing season. His attempt to calm the waters included making the case for patience in a November letter to supporters. As examples of the potential payoff, Stansbury cited Tech’s men’s basketball and volleyball programs.

It made sense for Stansbury to mention Michelle Collier. She energized the volleyball program with consecutive NCAA tournament bids. It was puzzling to include Josh Pastner, who just produced his first good season in his first five. More data was needed and, so far, the numbers don’t look good.

Tech fans hadn’t even stopped grumbling about Stansbury’s note when Pastner’s team began a four-game losing streak. The Yellow Jackets have lost eight of their past 10 games. They will need another late-season surge to make it back to the NCAA tournament for the second time since 2010.

One reason to think the Jackets can do it again: The ACC isn’t very good this season. The problem with that theory is that, unlike last season, neither are the Jackets. The usual profile for Pastner’s team is very good at defense, bad at scoring. The current Jackets have struggled to be respectable on either end of the floor.

That’s why their season already is “in desperate mode,” guard Michael Devoe said ahead of Wednesday’s home game against Wake Forest. Ken Pomeroy’s statistical projection has the Jackets (7-9, 1-5 ACC) finishing with a losing record. Their ACC schedule was front-loaded with tough games. It won’t matter that the schedule eases if, as the evidence suggests, the Jackets aren’t good.

“We’ve got a lot of games in front of us,” Pastner said Tuesday. “You can’t determine what our season is until the end of the year.”

Pastner’s record at Tech stands at 89-85, 43-54 in the ACC. Last year’s ACC tournament title with an NCAA automatic bid is his crowning achievement. That run was, according to Stansbury, “evidence of what can be accomplished here at Georgia Tech when programs are given the opportunity to build and grow.”

Credit: ArLuther Lee

Credit: ArLuther Lee

A single one-and-done NCAA tournament appearance over five seasons isn’t exactly aiming high. Now even that modest achievement is looking like an outlier. It’s not just that the Jackets are playing poorly after one good season. There also are few indications that they are building to something better.

Tech’s two best players, Michael Devoe and Jordan Usher, won’t be back next season. No underclassmen has played more than half of the available minutes. Pastner will have a hard time meeting his goal of getting old and staying old.

Said Pastner: “We had tremendous success last year, and I knew we’d take a little step back. That’s just natural because of who we lost. I also know how my vision can quickly get back to right where we were — and it still could happen this year — because of how game has evolved with the transfer portal.”

Pastner can’t sell those recruits on winning if the Jackets are left out of the NCAA tournament. Improving their pro prospects also isn’t a strong pitch. Tech hasn’t had a player selected in the NBA draft since Josh Okogie in 2018. Okogie had signed with Tech when Pastner got the job.

Credit: File Photo

Credit: File Photo

Pastner often would cite Okogie’s departure after two seasons as a reason for his program’s decline. Now he points out that Moses Wright and Jose Alvarado went pro from last season’s team. Point guard Alvarado was Tech’s best playmaker and a strong defender. Big man Wright was ACC player of the year.

The Jackets still have Devoe and Jordan Usher. Devoe is a smooth, efficient combo guard. Usher is an athletic and rugged wing. Both are terrific players who are candidates for the All-ACC team. Only Duke figures to have more selections than that. Plenty of the league’s team will have none.

This is a season when the Jackets could win in the ACC with two very good players. Instead, they are 1-5 in the league after starting 3-3 in each of Pastner’s first five seasons. It’s a letdown after the momentum and excitement generated by the Jackets last spring.

Pastner said “worst case, we should be 3-3″ in the ACC. The Jackets lost a close game to Louisville in their first contest following a COVID-19 outbreak and in overtime against Notre Dame. Pastner is relentlessly positive. I like that about him. Results are ultimately what’s he’s judged on, and they haven’t been good this season.

There are some mitigating circumstances. Last year’s unusual NBA draft cycle meant that Wright and Alvarado made their decisions to go pro later than usual. That hurt Pastner in the transfer market. Senior guard Bubba Parham (knee) has played in only two games. Center Rodney Howard (ankle) has missed the past five games, forcing the Jackets to play a small lineup (Pastner said Howard is close to returning).

But those kind of setbacks shouldn’t sink a healthy program. And Tech’s biggest issue, scoring, is nothing new. Points have always been a problem for Pastner’s Tech teams, even when he had Okogie and All-ACC center Ben Lammers.

The exception was last season. Devoe, Usher, Wright and Alvarado formed the core of Pastner’s best scoring team since he had future NBA standout Will Barton at Memphis. Tech’s offense was going to suffer without two of those four. Dropping from 22nd in opponent-adjust efficiency to 183rd isn’t what you expect to see from a building and growing program.

I don’t see the Jackets recovering to finish this season strong. I’d like to be proved wrong. There’s still nothing better than March Madness. It was fun when the Jackets were part of the 2021 edition. It was good when Tech was a men’s college basketball power.

I’d also like to be right in my thinking that Pastner was a good hire for Tech. My view mostly was based on his recruiting success at Memphis. But I also knew that Pastner’s Memphis teams were good on defense. It’s been the same at Tech. That’s the sign of a solid coach who can organize his players in a collective effort to be good at something that’s not always fun.

So far, Pastner has produced one good season for Tech (the Jackets were considered on the outside of the bubble when the pandemic canceled the 2020 tourney). That was enough for his boss to declare that Pastner is proof that patience with coaches pays off. I’m guessing Tech supporters would like to see a better return on investing their time, energy and money in pulling for Pastner’s Jackets.