Josh Pastner has Georgia Tech off to a strong start in his first season. Though the Yellow Jackets are rebuilding, the pace has been accelerated in Atlanta.
Based on everything he was told before and after he took the job as head men’s basketball coach at Georgia Tech, one couldn’t blame Josh Pastner if he had any second thoughts at all about his move from the AAC to the ACC.
But that’s not how the former Memphis head coach operates.
And as we enter the midway point of January, he has his Yellow Jackets exceeding the expectations of most everyone associated with the GT program.
The Jackets (11-6, 3-2 ACC) went into Raleigh on Sunday night and were led by freshman Josh Okogie’s 27 points in an 86-76 win—their third ACC victory of the season. Not too shabby for a team that many—including school officials—thought could go winless in the 2016-17 ACC campaign.
“I’ve had my bosses, media and coaches in my conference tell me we’re not going to win a game in the ACC,” Pastner told Campus Insiders. “I had never been in the league, so I thought ‘we might literally go 0-18, who knows?’ But I’m sitting here right now and we have [three] wins, plus we have a win at VCU. So we’ve done pretty well to this point.
“We still have a long way to go, though. A very, very long way to go. But I’m proud of my guys.”
Georgia Tech entered the 2016-17 college hoops season offering very little hope to its fan base, as four regular starters from the previous season were gone. The team’s top returning scorer, senior forward Quinton Stephens, averaged just five points per contest in 2015-16. Stephens matched his career high with 22 points in the victory over the Wolfpack, and has 11 games with double-digit point totals this year.
The Jackets have certainly experienced their share of growing pains, as is to be expected for such a young squad. They lost an early season home game to Ohio, which features potential NBA draft pick Antonio Campbell. There were also back-to-back road losses to Penn State and Tennessee, with another road test looming against VCU before a scheduled 10-day break. The young Jackets managed to score a surprising 76-73 overtime victory in Richmond, though. It was a much-needed win over a VCU squad that recently had an eight-game win streak snapped, as the Jackets started to look as if they had hit a little wall early in the year. Pastner’s steadiness guided them through the adversity.
“Not only are we a young team, but we are the most inexperienced team in all of college basketball,” Pastner said. “We’ve done a nice job of bouncing back, though. Even back in my time at Memphis, I have never lost three games in a row. This is my eighth year as a head coach, and we have always bounced back well. That’s been a characteristic of my teams.
“I really try to make sure we have a great positive energy. I think when you’re positive and upbeat, it helps you to quickly recover from some of those losses.”
Pastner may be onto something. Right before the arrival of the New Year, his team notched perhaps the biggest upset of the ACC season.
In their league opener at McCamish Pavilion, the Yellow Jackets knocked off then-No. 9 North Carolina, 75-63, behind Okogie’s 26 points to claim their first win in a conference opener since 2005-06. So much for that winless ACC season.
The next game was humbling, however, as Duke throttled the Jackets in Durham, 110-57, testing Pastner’s bounce back theory. Despite dropping the following contest to Louisville, though, the Jackets were within three points deep into the second half before ultimately falling to Rick Pitino’s Cardinals. It was a scrappy effort from a squad that has proven to be more cohesive than anyone could have imagined entering the year.
Since the loss to the Cardinals, GT has won two straight and has back-to-back tough tests against Virginia Tech and Virginia coming up. Expect Pastner to have his squad ready as usual and on an even keel.
There will continue to be growing pains this season, but what makes GT’s start even more impressive is that it came into Sunday night’s win over the Wolfpack ranked last in the ACC in scoring, shooting percentage and 3-point percentage. But the Jackets were hot against the ‘Pack, shooting 49 percent and making 10 of 16 3-pointers at PNC Arena in the victory.
The departures of guards Marcus Georges-Hunt and Adam Smith, who combined to average 31.7 points per game last season, certainly has affected the team’s scoring production. But Okogie has had point totals of 27, 26 and 38, the latter of which came on 12-of-20 shooting in a win over Tulane. And Ben Lammers has looked like a completely different player this year, averaging 15.1 points per game, 9.9 rebounds per game and 3.3 blocks per contest. Pastner said that Lammers is “not even in the same league” as the player he first saw in his initial workout.
The future is bright for a Georgia Tech program that has not reached the NCAA Tournament since the 2009-2010 season, when Paul Hewitt earned his fifth and final tourney appearance at Tech. The Jackets advanced to the round of 32, where they lost to Ohio State. Pastner, who is tied as the 10th-winningest head coach in his first seven seasons in NCAA D-I history (167 wins), understands the challenges of the job in Atlanta. But he embraced them from day one.
“Coming from Memphis and following John Calipari, I was following the greatest four-year run in NCAA history in terms of most wins,” Pastner said. “So for seven years, I was under that scrutiny to make sure the program remained at that level. When you’re following someone who won  percent of his games in the last four years, it’s a different outlook.
“So when this job opened, I looked at it as you’re in the ACC, you’re in Atlanta and they had great success in the past. For me to take something over at Memphis at the very highest level and to take something over at Georgia Tech where it’s brand new and sort of a start-up company … we just wanted to set the tone this season for Year 1 of our rebuild. I don’t think we put a win total on anything. Just set the tone.”
And, to continue avoiding any three-game skids, of course.