ATLANTA – Halfway through his first ACC season, Josh Pastner has exceeded expectations at Georgia Tech.
It’s been a surprising start for the 39-year-old coach. The Yellow Jackets have wins against top 10 teams with victories over North Carolina and Florida State. Last week they upset the Seminoles by a wide margin and took a last-second Top 25 victory over Notre Dame.
Pastner has made this happen with a roster he regularly cites as “the least experienced in the nation.” He mentions in every interview that Georgia Tech is early into “a four- to five-year major rebuild” and that it begins every game with “zero margin for error.”
Even so, nobody figured the Jackets would be 13-8 overall, much less 5-4 in the ACC, after they needed overtime to beat Division II Shorter in an early November exhibition.
Georgia Tech was picked in the preseason to finish at the bottom of the league.
“I know I’ve said that a lot, but it’s the truth,” Pastner said. “We have severe limitations. If we have an off night by certain guys, it’s just going to be hard for us.”
Everything hinges on the play of junior center Ben Lammers, one of the league’s most improved players. Lammers ranks second in the nation in blocked shots, second in the ACC in rebounding and fifth in league field-goal percentage. He averages 14.7 points.
Freshman guard Josh Okogie leads the team in scoring. Senior forward Quinton Stephens and junior Tadric Jackson both average in double figures, and Pastner is getting adequate assists and rebounding from guards Josh Heath and Corey Heyward.
Heading into Wednesday’s game at Clemson, Pastner has Georgia Tech playing with high energy. He’s pleased that its defense has the best field-goal percentage in conference play, but it all gets back to effort.
“I’m hard on guys who don’t have high motors and I’m not lowering my standard,” he said. “They have to meet me. It’s their responsibility.”
Expectations were low when Pastner arrived from Memphis nine months ago because the Jackets haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2010. Brian Gregory, Pastner’s predecessor, finished 11th three times, ninth once and 13th another year in the ACC.
Even so, Pastner credits Gregory with holding the program’s character to a high standard despite its struggles in the court.
“We had great kids, and that’s a credit to coach Gregory,” Pastner said. “He did a great job with the culture. The problem was the program needed a little shot or infusion of energy to the fan base and to give a little rah-rah here and there.”
At Memphis, Pastner was an assistant one year under John Calipari before Calipari left for Kentucky. At 31 years old when he took charge, Pastner missed the NCAA his first season, but he led the Tigers into March Madness four straight years before missing out in his last two seasons.
His message had worn thin, and so had Pastner’s confidence.
“When we lost a game, I wouldn’t go out, for seven years, because I felt like I’d let the entire city down,” he said. “And when you win, it was a relief. I could finally go outside my house and get dinner. I could actually go to the health club. I’m being serious. This is how I lived for seven years because you put the internal pressure on yourself, and in Memphis they care so much.”
It’s a different vibe at Georgia Tech. Atlanta has the Falcons, Braves and Hawks, and the metro area is undeniably passionate about college football.
“What excited me about this job is that they were rebuilding,” Pastner said. “The bosses told me they were going to hit the restart button. It was literally going to be a startup company, so I looked at this whole thing as an opportunity to put your footprint on it.”
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