On the morning of December 31, 2016, Josh Pastner was not thinking of completing his first season in the ACC with a conference record of 8-10. He did not hold notions of leading Georgia Tech to an upset of North Carolina in the ACC opener later that day.
It bears mention that, only three days earlier, the Yellow Jackets had to be rescued by graduate transfer forward Kellen McCormick’s 3-point marksmanship to beat a far less heralded team from North Carolina – North Carolina A&T – that would finish the season with one win against Division I competition.
“I was just hoping we’d win one game,” Pastner told the AJC. “That we didn’t go winless.”
The ensuing nine weeks have expanded the scope of possibility vastly and unbelievably to the point that a cynic might wonder if Pastner were sandbagging. Pastner acknowledges that his expectations were based partly on the repeated warnings he had been given from colleagues about what lay ahead with his team and also his lack of familiarity with the conference. Still, nearly losing at home to a team that by at least three ratings systems (RPI, KenPom and Sagarin) is in the lowest one percentile of Division I’s 351 teams has a way of suppressing optimism.
“I mean, I believed in our team, but to sit here and tell you that we’d have eight wins?” Pastner asked. “Come on, man. It’s surreal.”
In his office last Thursday, Pastner reflected upon a most remarkable season, one in which the Jackets have surpassed expectations, even their own, as they’ve embarked on a mission to recapture their once prominent status. In his first season at Tech, Pastner has experienced a re-set of his own, having left Memphis after a seven-year run that was largely successful but smoldering by the end.
“This has been the most enjoyable (season),” Pastner said. “And the joy that these guys have given me – and it is gratifying – but the best word, it’s been the most enjoyable, and I’ve really, really enjoyed the year. Really have.”
It has not been merely due to the upsets and the smashing of expectations.
“It’s the guys,” Pastner said. “They’ve allowed me to coach them and coach them hard from day one. It’s the guys that have made it enjoyable.”
While Pastner has repeated often how ACC colleagues warned him about the bare roster that he had been left and the bumpy road that lay ahead, what was either not recognized or perhaps not valued sufficiently was the mettle of players such as forward Quinton Stephens, center Ben Lammers and guard Josh Heath that Brian Gregory bequeathed to Pastner upon his dismissal.
They and their teammates have delivered the wins that will last a long time in the collective memory of the Tech fan base, particularly the upsets of North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame.
“Right after the (FSU) game, you’re like, what is going on?” Pastner said, reflecting on the 78-56 win over the Seminoles on Jan. 25 at McCamish Pavilion.
Pastner found Tech’s last win of the regular season, the senior-day victory against Pittsburgh last Tuesday, worth savoring in its own way. On the way off the McCamish floor, with the home schedule complete, Pastner said his mind wandered to the beginning of the season, to the overtime win over Division II Shorter in the preseason exhibition and then forward through the eight-win ACC season.
“To me, that was probably the most gratifying out of all the great wins we have, understanding, having a full picture of where we started,” Pastner said.
The joy is shared across the staff.
“I could say, personally, you could maybe coach 50 years and not have a more enjoyable experience,” said Julian Swartz, the team’s director of operations.
Swartz has seen the team’s character demonstrated in its willingness to be coached. That quality has been housed inside offensive and defensive schemes that have played to strengths and masked weaknesses.
With Lammers patrolling the lane, Tech finished the regular season ranked seventh nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. The Jackets’ ability to jam ballhandlers with their variety of defenses and rotate quickly to cover the floor and Lammers’ ability to block or alter shots made them first in the ACC in defensive field-goal percentage in league play.
“Defense is about character,” Swartz said. “You don’t have to be crazy talented or skilled or even have God-given ability like length and so forth. … That’s why I think we’re so good defensively. They play so hard and they fly around. You can teach defense through character.”
Tech’s success with lesser talent has made such an impression upon Pastner that he said it has “absolutely” caused him to re-calculate the importance of recruiting players with the team-first attitude that his players have shown.
“As I move forward in recruiting, we’ve got to recruit great players, but it can never be about them,” he said.
Tech’s season moves on to the ACC tournament, which for the Jackets begins Tuesday evening with a first-round matchup against Pittsburgh at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Tech’s defeat at Syracuse on Saturday likely reduced the Jackets’ window of opportunity to the narrowest of slits, but Pastner knows to not doubt his team.
“We’ve got to get a little luck, we’re going to have to make some shots, the ball’s going to have to bounce our way, but can we get hot and strike hot and strike a little magic, are we able to do that?” Pastner asked. “Absolutely. I just hope we’ve milked everything out of our guys to this point. I’m hoping they can give us one last final push as we move forward.”
And if the Jackets were to somehow squeeze into the field of 68 to finish a season that Pastner at one point hoped might include a 1-17 conference record?
“Unfathomable,” Pastner said. “Unthinkable.”