April 9, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– Spend time around Josh Pastner, and it’s clear that he’s not one to look back either for purpose of introspection or celebration. The man’s impatient, ever moving forward. Georgia Tech’s basketball coach says, “My entire life is based on energy.”
And energy doesn’t reflect.
Yet Pastner went back in time the other day, as light might reverse its travel to visit origin if that were possible – because the Yellow Jackets’ recent season is so worthy of review.
That … did … not … go … the … way … ANYONE … expected.
Including the new guy on The Flats.
The notion of the Jackets – having lost roughly 80 percent of their scoring and rebounding players to graduation from an NIT quarterfinal team – beating four teams that would wind up in the NCAA Tournament, including eventual national champion North Carolina – man, that’s crazy talk.
Running through four wins to reach the NIT title game, punching a ticket to Madison Square Garden with a 74-66 win at sold-out Ole Miss … is this fiction?
No, it was real, and Pastner didn’t see it coming last summer, after he was hired after seven years helming Memphis, and not even as the season got underway.
He’s been a bit stunned.
“Three biggest surprises … I’d say the 21 wins, eight in the ACC, who we beat because of the fact of what I was told at the spring meetings by other coaches,” Pastner said. “I had assumed going into the season we were going to win five, six, seven games overall. To beat the teams we beat, that was surprise one.
“When everyone’s telling you’re not going to win, and your roster’s this, and I’d never been in the ACC; I didn’t know. That’s a heck of a lesson.”
Buzz returned to Tech. Pastner had plenty to do with it, and not just in coaching. He got out and promoted his team, last fall meeting student groups that were “sometimes as few as three,” to solicit support for the Jackets.
He paid for student tickets for Tech’s two home NIT games, against Indiana and Belmont, and doughnuts the second time around. Crowds began to roar, buoyed by Tech’s home 75-63 win over North Carolina on Dec. 31. Another surprise.
“Two, I’d say probably the thirst and hunger the fan base has for Georgia Tech basketball,” the coach said. “They’d been dormant. They just needed an infusion of energy because people are really hungry and thirsty.”
It’s certainly uncommon to absorb so much satisfaction from a person who just finished doing so many things differently than he’d done them before.
Pastner changed several approaches.
After hiring Eric Reveno, Tavaras Hardy and former Jacket Darryl LaBarrie as assistants and then running the returning Jackets through several workouts last spring and summer, conclusions were reached.
For the first time in his head-coaching career, his team would run a single high-post offense.
“Ben Lammers, I thought … he had a decent feel passing. I felt we needed to do everything through him, and decided to give us our only chance to have success offensively was to run things through him at the high post.
“This is my eighth year as a head coach, the first year I’ve played single post. I’ve always gone three-out, two-in. It was based on our personnel.”
Senior Quinton Stephens, a small forward of modest accomplishment in his first three seasons at Tech, would be the power forward. He far, far surpassed all career highs with averages of 10.4 points and 7.6 rebounds, and was tied for second on the team with 27 blocked shots, and third in assists with 80.
“To give Quinton the best chance was to put him at the [power forward spot], and have the other team’s four have to guard him,” Pastner said. “I was hoping he shot the ball better. Quinton over-achieved for us, way over-achieved.
“He ended up 31 percent from three. I thought he was going to be 40 percent, but I didn’t know he was going to be able to rebound like he did. His rebounding was phenomenal. He really was great for us on the glass, great for us in the zone and he made some shots for us, too.”
Speaking of zone defenses, Pastner never deployed more.
All the Jackets did was finish No. 6 in the nation in defensive efficiency, allowing 91 points every 100 possessions. This was Tech’s hallmark, and it came about despite the fact that the Jackets were not blessed with hyper-athletic, on-the-ball defenders.
“I changed defenses in my career at Memphis, but I didn’t change them as much as I changed them here, and not at the rate I was changing,” Pastner said. “As we evolve and increase talent, maybe we don’t do it as much. What we’re doing is very complicated, trust me.
“It’s not easy, and one little screw-up can screw up everything. It’s very sophisticated, and I believe in simplicity. Maybe as we’re increasing our talent, do we decrease our defenses and keep it simple so they have to think less, and they’re quicker on their feet?”
With a few exceptions, the defense worked very well, anchored by Lammers. He blocked 125 shots, second-most in school history to Alvin Jones’ 141 in 1997-98, and was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
The keys, to be comprehensive, were multiple, and related to DNA.
“Absolutely, it’s also the character [of the players]. That’s where I give coach [Brian] Gregory credit that he left high-character kids so we were able to do things … defense is all in character. It’s about the will, the fight, the scrap, the multiple efforts and it’s all through team.
“It’s just playing hard, playing hard, and not afraid of contact. That’s why Corey Heyward was so great for us, and Quinton. Those guys gave up their bodies, and Josh Heath. I tell people, those three seniors, yeah, there are some deficiencies, but those three seniors gave up their bodies, and we’re going to miss that.”
There were more surprises.
Pastner said he figured after summer workouts that freshman guard Josh Okogie might by his third or fourth season garner All-ACC honors. He led the Jackets in scoring, going for 16.1 points per game, pulled 5.4 rebounds, tied for second on the team with 27 blocked shots, and led Tech with 48 steals.
He made the All-ACC Freshman team.
“My assistant coaches did a heck of a job with his development,” the coach said. “It was a joint effort by the previous staff in finding him, our staff in developing him, and Josh in the end with the work ethic.
“To do what he did, I don’t think anybody saw that. He wasn’t that good last summer. Last summer, there was no indication he was going to do what he did.”
In one way, Pastner’s not shocked by the Jackets’ over-achievement.
Again, he credits Brian Gregory for leaving Tech with high-quality people on the basketball team. He inherited a group of selfless student-athletes willing, much more often than not, to go down in the mines every day.
Watching junior guard Tadric Jackson only come off the bench and excel, but play with steady energy was a signature development. This squad was built around constant growth and boundless commitment to mission and team.
“I think what we’ve done this first year is we’ve established a culture of, hey man, if a guy’s on the floor, you’re picking him up,” Pastner said. “The bench is going to be great energy, whether you’re playing one minute, no minutes or 30 minutes. The name on the front of the jersey is more powerful than anything else.
“We’re a team, winning 50-50 balls, giving up a good shot to get a great shot, the open man’s the go-to man. All those things matter, and so it’s important that the seniors helped establish that and the underclassmen have to carry that.
“When new guys come in, [the elders] have to hold the fort, meaning nothing will change in terms of the culture that we’ve established in terms of how we play and what we do, the passion, the energy, with that fight, that scrap, that grime mentality, that blue-collar work ethic.”
Pastner is all the more impressed by the fact that the Jackets did what they did with onerous academic responsibilities saddle-bagging athletic commitments.
That, in fact, he ranked as one of his biggest surprises.
“The third thing I would say the toughness of the school,” the coach said. “Being around our guys, you’ve got to be disciplined to be both with the demands that I put on them athletically, and the demands they get academically. It’s hard.”