When Josh Pastner took the head coaching job at Georgia Tech in April 2016, he pored over film from every conference game the Yellow Jackets had played the year before.
After two weeks of practices with the team that summer, he gave his prognosis:
“Our margin for error is zero,” Pastner said. “We’re the most inexperienced team in all of college basketball. If we’re not near perfect or perfect in effort, execution and energy, we’re just not able to win. We have severe limitations. That’s what it is in a major rebuild job."
Now, in the final stretch of his first season, that seems like a pretty good call.
Georgia Tech is 15-10 on the year, 6-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and has been beaten by seven unranked teams. Yet the Jackets also boast wins over three top 15 teams, too.
Will the real Yellow Jackets please stand up?
Georgia Tech hasn't always been so up and down. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Yellow Jackets were a powerhouse, once ranked in 11 straight preseason polls. When Josh Okogie, the homegrown freshman averaging a team-high 15.3 points per game, was in elementary school, Tech made it to the 2004 national championship game. When he was a sophomore in high school, he saw current teammate Tadric Jackson on TV in the Georgia state championship. The announcers mentioned that Jackson, then a senior, was committed to the Yellow Jackets. “When I was growing up, to play at Georgia Tech was a dream,” Okogie said.
But the Jackets haven’t won the ACC, either the regular season or the conference tournament, since 1996. They haven’t been ranked in the AP Top 25 since 2010, the last year Tech made the NCAA tournament. They’ve won 20 games in a season just twice since 2007.
Now, with six games left in the regular season, Georgia Tech — the team picked in the preseason poll to finish 14th in the conference — may very well end up a top-half team in the ACC. The last time Georgia Tech finished above .500 in the ACC was the 2004 team that made the championship run.
One stat in particular holds hope for Georgia Tech fans. The Yellow Jackets are 3-3 vs ranked opponents, with all three wins in-conference. In the previous five years, Georgia Tech was 5-25 against the Top 25.
|Total record||Record vs. ranked|
“I wouldn’t have guessed it,” junior Ben Lammers said of the ranked wins. “You always believe going into games you can win every one, but obviously, going into this new coach and a lot of young players, you wouldn’t have expected that for sure.”
Ranked games are where the dichotomy of the Yellow Jackets is at its most apparent. On Dec. 31, Georgia Tech hosted No. 9 North Carolina, toppling the Tar Heels, 75-63. In their next game, the Yellow Jackets almost got doubled up by No. 8 Duke, 110-57.
Pastner says neither of those games really tell the current state of the program.
“I told everybody that we should not be judged on wins and losses, we should be [judged] based on, 'Do we get better from the start of the season to now,'” he said. “Based on that, where we had to go to overtime to beat Shorter, a Division II team, to where we are now, we’ve come a long way.”
Georgia Tech hosted Shorter in an exhibition game in early November, and the Yellow Jackets trailed by nine in the final minutes at home. They managed to force overtime and win 95-87.
Compare that to Jan. 25, when Tech trounced No. 6 Florida State 78-56, then shocked No. 14 Notre Dame with a buzzer-beater, 62-60. Just when it looked like the Yellow Jackets could grab some much-needed momentum in the final stretch of the season, though, they dropped back-to-back games by double-digit margins to Clemson and Wake Forest.
The two ranked wins came at home in McCamish Pavilion. The two unranked losses were on the road. Georgia Tech has outscored its opponents 70.3-61.1 at home, and been outscored 76.2-64.2 on the road. It’s not much of a surprise, then, that the Jackets are 13-3 at home and 2-7 away.
“At home, you’re just more familiar with the environment,” he said. “It’s just the energy the crowd brings. At away games, we don’t have as much crowd energy, so if we as a team don’t bring that energy, it’s hard for us.”
Still, Pastner is not deterred by his team’s performance on the road. Really, he’s not deterred by any part of his team’s performance in Year 1 of his overhaul.
“The plan was Year 4 or Year 5 is when we’re really going to be knocking on the door to be in the NCAA tournament,” Pastner said. “That was the plan when the bosses hired me. They said, ‘You’re not going to win a game in the ACC your first year, total of 20 wins total your first two years combined ...'"
Clearly, the plan is ahead of schedule, which shouldn't surprise anyone who has followed Pastner's career. In 2009, his first year at Memphis, the coach went 24-10, then took the Tigers to four straight NCAA tournaments.
Now, a winning record in the ACC is not completely out of the question. And some experts suggest that as it stands right now, Tech -- barring any major collapse -- might be on the verge of making the NCAA tournament.
Earlier this month, a reporter asked Pastner about his plan for the long rebuild of Georgia Tech basketball. Pastner cut him off.
“Not a long rebuild,” he said, cracking a smile. “A major rebuild.”