Georgia Tech won 21 basketball games last season. Should it play its final game Tuesday, it will have won only 13 this year. One doesn’t need advance analytics to understand that’s a step back.
It just doesn’t feel that way.
That’s not to suggest this is what coach Josh Pastner or anybody at Tech hoped for or banked on the year after the Yellow Jackets, widely projected for doom in Pastner’s first season, upset North Carolina and two other ranked teams and made a surprising run to final of the NIT. But as Pastner said, “We had a lot of things go right last season. It was the perfect storm.”
It also has been a perfect storm this season, the kind that capsizes college programs. An NCAA investigation and suspensions put Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson on the sideline early. Injuries wrecked the roster. Pastner started eight different lineups this season, and on most nights that included center Ben Lammers playing on a bad knee and an even worse ankle.
“Some nights it was like we were playing four-on-five,” he said.
Pastner had never been the head coach of a team that lost three games in a row. The Jackets spiraled and lost seven straight and 11 of 12.
So why is this man smiling?
Because despite all that losing, despite a 13-18 overall record and 6-12 in the ACC, which reduces the Jackets to playing with other conference after-thoughts on Tuesday’s opening day of the ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center, despite the fact that even the NIT won’t look in the Jackets’ direction next week, things aren’t all that depressing.
The Jackets have won their last two games (North Carolina State, Wake Forest) and players maintained a level of enthusiasm and effort not often seen for 13th place teams.
As strange as this may sound, Pastner has done a nice job keeping his players positive and navigating the wreckage of this season, even with the ongoing hangover of back-and-forth litigation between the head coach and the former hanger-on vermin that is Ron Bell.
“We’ve had to adjust so much, on the floor with injuries and obviously off-the-floor stuff,” Pastner said. “But the guys have stayed together. They practice hard. The way they’ve handled themselves is like we’re the fourth ranked team in the country. That’s our key as we’re moving forward. That’s the strength of our culture.
“If you watched any one of our games and you watch our bench, guys are cheering, there’s no pouting, they’re waving the towel,” Pastner said. “A lot of times when you’ve had the stretch of losing that we’ve had, you just want to get through the season, get done.”
Asked what his level of concern was when the team was in the midst of a seven-game skid, Pastner cracked: “I didn’t want to go into next season still trying to get win 200.” (Tech’s last two wins put him at 201 in his coaching career.)
It would have been easy for Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury to part ways with Pastner. He didn’t hire him, and it’s not like Pastner was so established that there would’ve been a huge blowback, even though the coach had quickly become popular with players and the student body.
But Stansbury was taken by Pastner’s immediate impact and infectious personality last season. He likes what the coach is building. McCamish Pavilion has rocked on many nights and presents an atmosphere Georgia has craved.
Stansbury said recently on the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast that he viewed Pastner as a “great coach and a great person,” and he’s backing him all the way in the Bell case. Pastner also appears to be recruiting well, against the backdrop of Tech academic standards and trying to convince top recruits that the Jackets of today are not what they will be.
“We have a lot to sell,” the coach said.
Know what else? Tech might not be an easy out this week. The Jackets certainly can beat Boston College in their opening game at noon. If they make it to Wednesday, they face North Carolina State, which they just beat. If they make it Thursday, there’s Clemson, also beatable.
Lammers is healthy for the first time since anybody can remember and gives the Jackets a force in the middle. He said of the once problematic ankle: “Obviously, it’s still achy here and there but that’s normal this of the year. I feel like I have a little pep in my step now. There’s nothing detrimental to my movements. Before, it definitely, unfortunately made me a step or two slower. It was like: I can’t make that certain move, I can’t block that shot.”
Tech’s spiral coincided with the loss to guard Jose Alvarado to a fractured elbow last month. Pastner moved Okogie to the point but it messed up the player as much as it did the team. So Pastner tried Jackson and the results the last two games have been much better.
But at least now, they’re basketball problems.
“There’s really no noise,” Pastner said. “We can focus on basketball.”
That part of it should get better, because, in Pastner’s words, “We may never see another year like this.”
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