ATLANTA — Josh Pastner's first season at Georgia Tech went much better than expected.
The Yellow Jackets had 21 wins. They knocked off North Carolina , Florida State and Notre Dame . They reached the final of the National Invitation Tournament .Most notably, they generated some excitement on campus for the first time in years.
Heading into his second season as coach, Pastner knows his program is facing much greater expectations.
"When I got the job, they told me I wasn't going to win a game in the ACC," Pastner recalled. "My bosses told me that, and they said over my first two years we're going to win a total of 20 games. So obviously we overachieved last year. We had a great year, kind of maybe a perfect storm."
But, he quickly cautioned, it's too early to proclaim the Yellow Jackets have turned things around.
Georgia Tech hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2010.
This transformation will take longer than a single year .
"I still think we're in a rebuilding process," Pastner said. "We could be better this year and not win as much. I mean, we've got fortunate on some games. We got a little lucky here and there. And for us to have success this year, we're going to have to get a little lucky along the way, and we'll have to stay healthy."
The coach is a relentless recruiter, and he knows it will take some big-time prospects to really turn the corner in the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference.
He hasn't been able to land any so far.
But the Yellow Jackets are starting to chip away.
"Last year we did a great job by creating a culture, and I think the whole entire school as well as other people started to follow along with that," center Ben Lammers said. "I think we'll build off of what we did last year and hopefully improve on that."
Some things to watch for this season from the Yellow Jackets:
OKOGIE EMERGES: Guard Josh Okogie is the unquestioned leader of the team after averaging 16.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in his freshman season. He's looking to take on an even bigger role.
"It feels pretty good, just knowing a lot of pressure's going to be placed on my shoulders and being able to accept that pressure," he said. "And not only be able to keep my composure, but keep teammates' composure as well because this year I'm taking that leadership role. I feel like it's going to be a great test to see where I'm at."
MIDDLE MAN: Lammers was the ACC's defensive player of the year, leading the team with 125 blocks and a 9.2 rebounding average. Even more notably, he showed a vastly improved scoring touch, finishing behind Okogie at 14.2 points per game.
Pastner will be looking for more improvement at the offensive end.
"He shot the ball well. He can pass it. He can block shots," the coach said. "But he's got to score better around the basket for us. That's got to be a big thing."
FRESHMEN IMPACT: Pastner didn't land any five-star recruits. That doesn't mean his four freshmen will be stuck on the bench. Point guard Jose Alvarado and forwards Curtis Haywood II, Moses Wright and Evan Cole are all going to get a shot at significant playing time, looking to follow the lead set by Okogie in his stellar freshman year.
3-POINT SHOOTING: Georgia Tech needs to improve its accuracy beyond the arc to prevent opponents from sagging into the lane, which was a popular way to defend the Yellow Jackets last season. Judging from an exhibition game after cross-city rival Georgia State, that's still a work in progress.
Facing a zone, the Yellow Jackets made only 3 of 25 from outside the stripe in a 65-58 loss.
AVOIDING INJURIES: Georgia Tech returns its top three scorers in Okogie, Lammers and senior guard Tadric Jackson (12.1 ppg coming mostly off the bench). They're a solid nucleus, but the Yellow Jackets are short on depth.
"They'll have to remain healthy," Pastner said. "We don't have that .... margin for error after those guys."