This season’s Georgia Tech men’s basketball team is the worst-ever in Ken Pomeroy’s statistical rankings, which date to the 2001-02 season. The 2009 Yellow Jackets finished 2-14 in the ACC, but at least they lost a lot of close games. This season’s Jackets are 1-10 in the ACC, and the losing margin was fewer than 11 points only once.
The Jackets never should be this bad. It wasn’t long ago that they were good. Tech won the ACC Tournament less than two years ago. Now the best-case scenario looks to be a 5-15 finish in the ACC for the second consecutive season.
How did the Jackets fall so far, so fast? More puzzling to me is how they’ve been mediocre-to-bad for so long.
I’ve lived in Atlanta for 13 years. During that time, the Jackets have made the NCAA Tournament twice and won one game. That seems unfathomable to me. My early impressions of the Jackets were formed by watching Bobby Cremins regularly lead them to victory over Denny Crum’s Louisville teams. The Jackets always were good back then, and they won with Paul Hewitt, too.
Maybe no coach can win again at Tech like Cremins once did. After all, none of them could do it in the 60-plus seasons before Tech hired him. But the bar certainly is higher than what the Jackets have cleared for more than a decade. Josh Pastner’s results have been better than predecessor Brian Gregory’s, but that’s not saying much.
“I’m aware of the problem, the challenge,” Pastner said during this week’s ACC coaches teleconference. “I’m a solution-focused type person. I get it. I see the same thing. Now it’s ‘OK, how are we going to fix it?’ We are trying different things. We are not standing pat.”
Pastner said Tech’s schedule is easing up after it was front-loaded with ACC title contenders. That’s true. The relief begins Wednesday night in Louisville. The Cardinals are the worst Power Five team of the Pomeroy era. If the Jackets don’t beat Louisville, then who knows when their ACC losing streak, currently at seven games, will end.
Pastner further noted that his teams usually improve as the season goes along. He’s right about that, too, though it hasn’t happened yet this season. In previous years you could expect his teams to improve from the baseline set early in the season, especially defensively. It’s plausible that improved play by Tech against an easier schedule will equal more victories.
Make more shots and the Jackets can win both remaining games against Louisville, which struggles to score even more than Tech does. Get more stops and Tech can win the rematch against Notre Dame at home. Play well at both ends and perhaps the Yellow Jackets can beat a team that isn’t in the ACC’s bottom five with them.
That’s not exactly aiming high. It’s all the Jackets have left in this lost season. Good things seem far away for Tech men’s basketball, but then hasn’t that been the case for all but a couple of years over the past 15? That just doesn’t make sense.
Basketball doesn’t have as many obstacles to winning as with football. Tech’s academic standards are the same for both programs, but the numbers aren’t. A football coach needs lots of good players and enough depth. A basketball coach can build a winner around two or three standouts, like Pastner has done three times in seven seasons.
More resources might help. The Jackets play in a very nice arena, but relatively little money is spent on men’s basketball. The program’s operating expenses ranked eighth among the ACC’s nine public schools in 2019-20, per Sportico’s college athletics finances database. Tech athletics also has been slow to get on board with collectives for name, image and likeness. That’s no way to attract elite athletes who are looking to earn some of their value in a system that continues to steal most of it from them.
You’d think that Tech would get stronger return on whatever investment it makes in the men’s basketball program. Instead, the results have lagged its ACC peers for a long time. Only Wake Forest (one) and Boston College (zero) have fewer NCAA tourney appearances after 2009. Those also are the only other ACC men’s programs with fewer than two NCAA tourney victories during that time.
No one expects the Jackets to be North Carolina. But can they really do no better than Clemson or Virginia Tech? Shouldn’t the expectations be higher than finishing in the ACC’s bottom five six times in the nine years since the league expanded to 15 teams? This year will make it seven times in 10 years unless the Jackets make a dramatic turnaround.
Granted, the ACC is tougher now than it was during Cremins’ day because it’s deeper. The league added four schools over the years that take men’s basketball seriously: Notre Dame, Louisville, Syracuse and Pitt. Two of the football-focused schools, Miami and Florida State, hired good coaches who’ve stayed put for a long time.
That doesn’t fully explain why Tech men’s basketball hasn’t been better over so many years. It certainly doesn’t justify why the Jackets are so bad now.
“Losing stinks,” Pastner said. “All I know we can’t get into a fetal position. There’s no, ‘Woe is me.’ We’ve got to get right back at it and keep fighting, keep grinding. We’ve got to get ourselves off the ropes. We can’t lay there.”
The problem for Tech men’s basketball is that, over 15 years, the program really has gotten off the ropes only a couple of times. That doesn’t make sense to me.
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