Among former Tech players, excitement builds for Pastner, Jackets

About 90 minutes had passed since Josh Okogie set McCamish Pavilion on its ear by racing to the basket to beat No. 14 Notre Dame with a game-winning layup just before time expired.

Former Georgia Tech players, in the arena for their annual alumni game, had moved the party up to the Callaway Club, the expanded suite-style space overlooking Cremins Court. The air was filled with the nostalgia of a reunion and the joy of a wedding reception, and for a moment Saturday, the man holding everyone’s attention was the man for whom the court is named.

“If you’re not proud to be a Yellow Jacket today, something’s wrong,” Tech coaching great Bobby Cremins told the assembly of former players and family.

Among those assembled, there was little doubting the pride in the team, which hammered No. 6 Florida State on Wednesday and then rallied to upend the Fighting Irish on Saturday. With the New Year’s Eve defeat of then-No. 9 North Carolina, Pastner’s Jackets became the first since the 2009-10 team (the last to make an NCAA tournament) to beat as many as three Top 25 teams.

The fervor particularly centered on Pastner, who has choreographed the seemingly unthinkable. A team expected to be among the weaker power-conference teams in the country, the Jackets enter Wednesday night’s matchup with Clemson at 13-8 overall and 5-4 in the ACC. A team pegged to finish 14th of 15 teams in the league has a clear shot at an NCAA tournament berth.

“I’m starting to believe that Josh has the personality,” Jackets legend Dennis Scott said. “I like how he’s tweaked his system to fit his players. That lets me know he knows what … he’s doing. I think that’s half the battle.”

Cremins, whose loyalty to Tech has never wavered since retiring from Tech in 2000 (he returned to coach six seasons at College of Charleston before retiring again in 2012), can hardly believe what he has seen.

“The transformation’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s incredible for a team to be picked last, next to last, and to do what they’re doing. To me, it’s one of the best stories in college basketball right now. Again, you’ve got to give Brian (Gregory) some credit, but Josh Pastner has taken this group together, and it’s amazing. And everybody feels it.”

Pastner stayed briefly at the reception, accepting well wishes before addressing the gathering. He joined the tradition of ribbing Cremins, who felt compelled to ask Pastner for permission to attend practice or obtain tickets.

“I say, ‘Coach — your name is on the floor,’” Pastner said to laughs. “‘If you want to coach the team, I’ll move over. You’ve earned that right.’”

Among those who wanted to meet him was former player Jack Mansell, who has the distinction of being Cremins’ first recruit and a roommate of Jackets legend Mark Price.

“Hey, I want to tell you this is some of the best coaching I’ve ever seen,” Mansell told Pastner.

Mansell acknowledged later that he was initially as doubtful of Pastner as many Tech fans, who wondered why then-athletic director Mike Bobinski had hired a coach whom Memphis fans were thrilled to see leave. He said he even called his buddy Price, now in his second season at Charlotte, and said he should sit tight for a couple seasons and then scoop up the job after what he thought was Pastner’s seemingly inevitable failure.

“I’m just seeing disaster,” Mansell said.

But Mansell, a season ticket holder who records games to review after he returns home, has been floored. He likes the unselfish ball movement, the Princeton-style backdoor cutting and the belief that Pastner has inspired.

“With as little (talent) as he has and with as little expectations, a lot of times (when such teams win), you go, it’s mostly coaching,” Mansell said. This season, “I mean, it’s almost all coaching. I can’t think of many other coaches that could get as much as he’s gotten out of it.”

Former Tech players, who have longed for a team that could attain the heights once achieved during the tenures of Cremins and Paul Hewitt, have found hope in Pastner, his staff and the team.

“It’s unbelievable,” said James Forrest, the former All-ACC forward and the MVP of the 1993 ACC tournament. “We’re just so proud because it’s just been so long to be able to come to these games and see sellout crowds and just see the kids play so hard and coaches have their attention. It’s special right now.”

In fairness, Tech sold out games during the Gregory tenure, and effort was a hallmark of his teams. Still, it’s hard to dispute the results.

“The kids that Brian brought in here are playing unbelievable basketball,” Cremins said. “I just can’t believe this quick turnaround. I can’t get over it.”

On Pastner’s radio show Monday night, a caller who identified himself as “Ken from Atlanta” turned out to be legend Kenny Anderson.

After seeing a tweet promoting the show, “I said, let me call in and congratulate you on a great start, a great season so far,” Anderson said. “I’m excited the program is going in the right direction. I love watching you guys play.”

As hopeful as he is, Scott has an eye that remains true. He said that the bottom line will be bringing in-state talents such as Pace Academy’s Wendell Carter (bound for Duke) and Jonesboro High’s M.J. Walker (undecided) to Tech and adding out-of-state stars, as he and Anderson once were.

Until that happens, “it’s going to be hard to compete. But the energy, the effort, they play hard — that’s worth watching,” Scott said. “That’s worth watching.”

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