New to the ACC and lacking experience with rebuilding teams, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner concedes he doesn’t quite know what to expect as he begins his first season with the Yellow Jackets. At the league’s basketball media day Tuesday, colleagues helped paint a picture of what awaits. Let’s just say it was not a rendering of a bouquet of roses.
“When people change jobs, there’s a reason, and the reason is usually because somebody else was not successful,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “So it’s going to be a tough road for Josh. But he’s a marathon guy, he’s not a sprinter. He’s going to be able to stay with it and see what happens. But it’s a tough league.”
The Jackets are up against it. There’s little quibbling that the ACC is the toughest conference in the country. Last season, seven teams made the NCAA tournament, six made the Sweet 16 (an NCAA record) and two made the Final Four. Five teams are in the preseason coaches poll, including No. 1 Duke, No. 6 North Carolina and No. 7 Virginia. Louisville coach Rick Pitino said that 11 teams could receive NCAA bids this season.
Meanwhile, Tech was ranked the least experienced team in Division I by ESPN, losing five seniors who contributed 76 percent of the team’s scoring while bringing in a freshman class that is promising but probably not poised for an immediate impact. The team’s leading returning scorer, forward Quinton Stephens, averaged five points per game.
“Celebrate the little successes and keep going, keep going,” said Virginia’s Tony Bennett, who oversaw his own rebuild with the Cavaliers. “And then you get a little momentum. But this is a tough league to do it. It’s going to be a tough league for every team this year.”
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton knows the territory. During his 10-season tenure at Miami, the Hurricanes were 1-17 in the Big East in his second season and 0-18 two years later before going 39-13 in conference play in his final three seasons.
“It’s a little more challenging because of where he’s starting from, getting the job that late (in the hiring cycle) and having six seniors,” Hamilton said. “It’d be nice if he had sophomores and juniors that were mature and were growing. He’s losing six (after this season) and he’s going to come in next year and be extremely young. It’s tough.”
Various coaches stressed the importance of patience from Pastner himself and those around him, including fans. Bennett said that he’ll have to stay true to his vision and ignore critics.
“It’s just a league that is unforgiving,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “It’s going to take a little time for him to get the kind of guys that he wants to mesh with the guys that were left and make progress.”
Pitino can sympathize with Pastner. His own son, Richard, is in his fourth season at Minnesota and has seen his Big Ten record go from 8-10 to 6-12 to 2-16 last season. Recruiting is the toughest part about rebuilding in a power conference, Rick Pitino said, “because you not only have to get really good players, but you have to get ’em as good as your competition, and you’re talking about six, seven teams all ranked in the top 20.”
Still, coaches were optimistic about Pastner in the long term, particularly because of his ability to recruit. Hamilton said that Pastner just needs time because of the quality of talent in metro Atlanta.
“His style of ball will be interesting to (recruits),” Hamilton said. “They’ll like his style. I think they’ll be excited about wanting to be a part of his system. He just needs to get it going.”
Williams has known Pastner since the latter was coaching his father’s AAU team in Houston.
“Josh is going to be very successful, but the first couple of years are going to be hard,” he said.