Pastner’s job not at risk

Photo by Casey Gomez

When former Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski hired Josh Pastner, shortly before jetting off to Purdue, he made Pastner the third men’s basketball head coach on payroll, joining the recently fired Brian Gregory and the not-so-recently fired Paul Hewitt. And despite the fact that finances were tight, it was indeed time to find a new coach. Gregory had taken the reigns from Hewitt and picked up where his predecessor left off: disappointment. While Gregory was a perfectly respectable coach in the A-10 Conference, guiding his Dayton Flyers to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances and an NIT championship in eight years, he could not come close to replicating that success in Atlanta. Three of his five seasons were losing campaigns, and the Jackets never reached the Top 25, or for that matter, the Big Dance.

The question that many asked when Bobinski picked Pastner, however, was whether the young Memphis head man was the right fit in Atlanta. At Memphis, Pastner succeeded John Calipari when the latter took over at Kentucky and earned NCAA Tournament bids in four of his seven seasons as head coach. But even as he brought in high-end talent, the team never made it to the Sweet Sixteen. By the end, Memphis leadership was so willing to let Pastner leave that they paid him over a million dollars to accept the Tech job — despite the fact that Pastner owed them money, per the contract.

Three years later, the script on Pastner from Memphis has been flipped. He has not recruited the elite talent he drew to Memphis; freshman Michael Devoe is the only four-star prospect he has wooed straight out of high school. In fact, his two most productive players over his tenure — Josh Okogie and Ben Lammers — were Gregory recruits. But while Pastner was panned for never turning recruiting rankings into on-court success at his previous job, he has coaxed significant production from underappreciated players in Atlanta. It was Pastner who turned Ben Lammers from a deferential benchwarmer into a dominant frontcourt piece over the course of a single offseason. It was under Pastner’s watch that Okogie, the No. 219 player in the country when he graduated from high school, became a first-round NBA draft pick two years later. The fruits of this development were particularly evident his first year, when the Jackets knocked off a number of ranked teams and made it to the NIT finals.

Yet instead of clinching NCAA Tournament bids or conference titles, all Pastner’s team has clinched this season is another year excluded from postseason play and a losing ACC record. In fact, with Pastner’s and Gregory’s records at Tech so remarkably similar, one might wonder: does Josh Pastner deserve to be on the hot seat?

The answer: absolutely not. Pastner inherited a long-term rebuilding project when he arrived in Atlanta — that, he acknowledged, was one of the great appeals of the job as opposed to living up to the expectations of the Calipari era in Memphis, courtesy of At Tech, Pastner would have to bring life to a program that had not sniffed a March Madness bid since the 2009-10 season — and what’s more, he would have to do it without a full offseason to recruit his first class and in the toughest college basketball conference. While his shockingly good 2016-17 season, one that left him with the title of ACC Coach of the Year, was exciting and ultimately good for the program, it had two side effects. 

First, it catapulted the draft stock of Josh Okogie, who would leave one year later after an injury-hampered sophomore campaign. A slightly slower start for Okogie and he might be donning the white and gold for the coming week’s games instead of playing significant minutes for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Second, it likely caused some fans to forget the despair that led to Gregory’s firing: a cupboard of talent that had been emptied with no results to show for it. Pastner’s second-year slump can easily be explained by injuries to the two most important players on the team — Okogie and Lammers. This season, the team has struggled to integrate Devoe, the first marquee signing of the Pastner era, while making do with limited frontcourt depth. Despite that, the Jackets have played stingy defense and have largely remained competitive with teams much more talented than they are.

And those who wish to see Tech pick a new head coach would be hard pressed to suggest a compelling alternative. The job is likely unappealing to outsiders — if Pastner, who was known as a strong recruiter at Memphis, has been able to reach even a modicum of his previous success on the trail, could anyone short of a John Calipari or a Roy Williams do better? And there are no particularly attractive in-house options. The best choice would likely be Eric Reveno, a former Portland head coach who focuses on coaching big men. Arguably, Lammers and Abdoulaye Gueye have shown more growth than any other player on the team during his tenure. But there is a reason Reveno was let go at Portland after a ten-season stretch in which he compiled a losing record. Promoting him to lead an ACC program would be anything but prudent.

Tech basketball rides a six-game losing streak. Its offense is at times horrendous. Its most consistent contributor, Gueye, will play his last game at the Thrillerdome a few weeks from now. But James Banks III has another year of eligibility, Jose Alvarado has two and Devoe has three. Young players like Moses Wright and Evan Cole have shown flashes here and there. Kristian Sjolund could be the deep threat forward Tech has long lacked. And both because he has done a perfectly good job and because there is no clear better alternative, Josh Pastner should be back coaching them.