Josh Pastner’s forever young Georgia Tech team may be bad again

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Josh Pastner stressed his team’s youth Monday, and just in case I didn’t get the point, his messenger reiterated it afterward. It was like déjà vu. The same thing happened at about this time last season when I inquired why the Georgia Tech men’s basketball team was bad so soon after the Yellow Jackets won the ACC Tournament.

Pastner’s “Get Old, Stay Old” mantra seems to have evolved to become “Forever Young.” Maybe Tech can get Alphaville to play a halftime show at McCamish Pavilion. My fellow ‘80s kids and “Napoleon Dynamite” fans know what I mean.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Yellow Jackets

Pastner’s program could use the nostalgia. Better for supporters to think back to when Tech men’s basketball was consistently good rather than face the current reality. The Jackets finished next-to-last in the ACC last season, and media picked them to finish dead last this year. Ken Pomeroy’s preseason statistical projections agreed that the Jackets are the ACC’s worst team, by a substantial margin.

During their nonconference schedule, the Jackets beat Georgia and lost to the other three Power Five teams they faced. After getting blown out at North Carolina two weekends ago, Tech resumes ACC play Wednesday versus Clemson at home. The Tigers are part of the ACC’s large middle class of teams. Winning games like this is how Tech can prove Pastner right in his assessment that his team isn’t so bad.

“I think our team was better than that initially,” Pastner said. “I like our group. I’ve said from the beginning, we will get better as a group the more we play. That being said, we’ve got to go produce. We’ve got to go get wins.

“We don’t have a margin for error. Very similar to Year 1, we don’t have a margin for error.”

Pastner later paused, before adding: “In Year 1, we were old. This year, we are not old. ... This year, we are much younger. So, it would be a very big overachieve based on projections just based on our youth.”

College coaches who always are talking about their youthful teams remind me of the messaging from tanking NBA franchises. Sure, things are bad now, but they’ll be better in a future that can be pushed out for as long as the team’s decision-makers can keep their jobs. Todd Stansbury no longer is employed as Tech’s athletic director. One of his final major decisions was to give Pastner a contract extension before last season.

That was months after Pastner guided the Jackets to a fourth-place finish in the ACC and the conference tournament title. Last season, the Jackets slid to 12-20 overall, 5-15 in the ACC. After Year 1, Pastner’s pattern at Tech has been to produce two bad seasons followed by one decent campaign and then a breakthrough. If the pattern repeats, we can expect Tech to be bad again this season, improve next season and then earn another NCAA tourney bid in 2025.

Whether you think youth is a legitimate explanation for Tech’s struggles or a weak excuse probably depends on your perspective. I didn’t buy it as an alibi for Pastner last season. The team’s best players, Michael Devoe and Jordan Usher, were seniors with multiple seasons as starters. Tech’s average experience was 1.99 seasons, according to Pomeroy’s weighted formula. Only six ACC teams had more experience.

Youth is a bigger factor for the Jackets this season. Their average experience of 1.47 seasons is more than only three of their ACC peers, and one of those, Duke, reloaded with NBA prospects. The Jackets rely heavily on a talented trio of sophomores from Pastner’s best recruiting class. Miles Kelly, Dallan Coleman and Jalon Moore are 1-2-3 in scoring for the Jackets.

A second-year leap from those players is one reason to believe Tech can beat expectations this season.

“My first year we were picked dead last,” Pastner noted, and though Tech really was picked next-to-last by media, you get his point. “It’s a great opportunity, based on those predictions and projections, to sort of have a chance to overachieve in a sense.”

That’s one way to look at it. Alternatively, you might wonder why the Jackets are bringing up the rear in the ACC for two consecutive seasons.

Pastner’s Get Old, Stay Old plan has produced a single one-and-done NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons. Assuming the Jackets don’t make the Big Dance this season, that will make it one NCAA Tournament for Pastner in seven seasons. The Jackets might have made it in 2020 if not for the pandemic, though they were on the wrong side of the bubble.

Pastner’s first Tech team wasn’t as old as he recalls. Those Jackets averaged 1.43 seasons of experience, fewer than this season’s team. Only three ACC teams were younger that season. Tech finished 8-10 in the ACC, and Pastner was voted league coach of the year. It was evidence that Pastner can help a young team punch above its weight if there’s enough talent on the roster.

Pastner had done the same thing at Memphis. The youngest-ever Tigers squad won the 2011 Conference USA Tournament. That was the first of four consecutive NCAA tourney bids for Memphis. Those teams didn’t get old and stay old so much as Pastner kept replacing good departing players with more of them.

Pastner brought a different approach to Tech. The 2019-20 and ‘20-21 seasons were the apex of his Get Old, Stay Old formula. The Jackets were at their best with the talented, experienced core of Moses Wright, Jose Alvarado, Devoe and Usher.

The Jackets slid after Wright and Alvarado left. Pastner said he might have done better in the transfer portal before last season if he didn’t need to wait for Wright and Alvarado to decide whether they would go pro. He said in February that the transfer portal would be how his Get Old, Stay Old plan gets back on track for this season. It didn’t work out that way.

Bubba Parham and Khalid Moore transferred out. They played a combined 3,909 minutes for Tech over 175 games, with 83 starts. Lance Terry and Javon Franklin transferred in. They played a combined 2,360 minutes over 115 games and 68 starts at their previous stops.

Before the season, Pastner said Terry and Franklin’s age and experience would make a difference for Tech as opposed to bringing in freshman signees. How is that working out?

“Both transfers have done nice,” Pastner said Monday. “They are older guys in the sense they’ve been to college already. But a lot of other guys (are young).”

Ah, to be forever young, like Tech men’s basketball with Pastner as coach.