Countdown to Tipoff: 8 Days
After three tumultuous seasons on The Flats, Josh Pastner finds himself squarely on the hot seat headed into year four of his tenure as the Yellow Jackets head coach. If we look at how Pastner got to this point though, the journey has hardly been linear.
After taking over the program in 2016, he was met with very low expectations for his first season. He responded by leading a team that overwhelmingly exceeded said expectations, as Tech won nine ACC games and made a run all the way to the NIT championship. Suddenly, a higher standard had been set, and with Tech’s two best players in Ben Lammers and Josh Okogie returning for the 2017-18 season, there was an assumption that the team would at minimum make it back to the NIT and potentially challenge for an NCAA berth. But in a somewhat opposite scenario from year one when Pastner’s team was one of the biggest surprises in the nation, they turned in one of the most disappointing performances in year two. A combination of on and off court issues from injuries to the Ron Bell saga, caused Tech to stumble out of the gate and ultimately finish with just five ACC wins and no postseason tournament appearance. Year three saw Tech lose Lammers to graduation and Okogie to the NBA draft; the cupboard seemingly bare once again. Rostering a very young team in 2018-19, the Jackets this time just about met expectations, winning a total of six ACC games, actually a slight improvement from the year prior.
At this point, Pastner has completed a full recruiting cycle and has had the opportunity to fully install and commit to the offensive and defensive systems that he wishes to run. Unfortunately, he and the Tech basketball program find themselves pretty much in the same position they did three years ago, somewhere between the middle and the bottom of the ACC. Without a tangible improvement seen in this upcoming season, Josh Pastner’s seat will go from habanero to ghost pepper on the Scoville scale. I believe a tangible improvement must resemble an NIT worthy resume (as we all know, the Jackets are currently appealing their postseason ban stemming from NCAA violations, the result of which will determine its status of eligibility). Whether remaining on the hot seat will result in Pastner’s firing is debate for another day in an article entitled, “GT’s Money Problems.” The good news for Tech is that they are potentially rostering Pastner’s deepest and most talented team so far (I still think that 2017 team has an argument).
In 2016-17 Tech went 21–16 and 8–10 in ACC play while earning a 6 seed in the NIT. They would probably be able to afford a few more ACC losses seeing that the ACC schedule has expanded to 20 games given that they do a better job of taking care of business in out of conference play. Games against Nebraska, Arkansas, Georgia and certainly Kentucky (just work with me here) present the opportunity to grab some quality resume boosting wins early in the season. Regardless, 21 wins is probably a good benchmark for what they need to achieve, which would be an increase of seven from the 14 they secured last season. So, the million-dollar question is how Pastner can translate its aforementioned talent into seven additional wins? Let’s discuss.
So far in his time at Tech, the one thing that Pastner has proven is that he’s an excellent defensive head coach from an X’s and O’s perspective. In all three of his seasons so far as head coach, the Jackets have finished in the top half of the ACC in Ken Pom’s adjusted deficiency, a metric that adjusts for tempo. In 2016-17, they finished sixth in the entire nation! That’s an incredible stat when you think about it, considering Tech has never finished in the top half of the ACC standings in any of those seasons. It does suggest one thing though: Tech’s offense needs to catch up.
To examine how Tech can make a leap offensively, I took a step back to look at Tech’s roster and found three areas that can help the Jacket’s improve their scoring output.
The first is the continued improvement of Moses Wright. If you only watched the first and last games of Tech’s 2018-19 season, you likely would have been blown away by the transformation of Wright’s game. Moses is one of the best raw athletes on Tech’s roster but for much of his freshman and early portions of his sophomore season he looked like an athlete that was lost on a basketball court. He struggled to really develop an offensive skillset and lacked a solid feel for the game. Many times, when the ball would end up in his hands I got worried because I felt he was likely to turn the ball over or brick an ugly jump shot. But over the last six games, Moses began to look like a different player, especially showing great touch around the rim. Not surprisingly, Tech went 3-3 in those games, culminating in a career high 25-point outing from Wright against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament. If there’s a carryover effect for him from the end of last season to this one and especially if Pastner and big man coach, Eric Reveno, can help him to develop his game even further, he could form a nice frontcourt with James Banks.
Secondly, the impact that Tech gets from its wings must improve. For this argument I am not placing combo guard Michael Devoe in this category. Overall, this was a group that severely underwhelmed in my estimation last year and held Tech back offensively. Many teams get a bulk of their scoring from this position group. Unfortunately for Tech, there was just no one that could be relied on consistently. Brandon Alston, Shembari Phillips, Curtis Haywood and Khalid Moore, the players who made up the bulk of the wing minutes last season, COMBINED to score just 18.9 points per game. Let that sink in for a minute. Alston has since graduated, and Haywood has left the program but even if just one of the other two guys could make a jump it would be massive for Tech. The Jackets are also lucky to have a transfer coming in, in the form of Jordan Usher, who could provide a big impact. Usher is a sweet shooting 6’7” wing who left USC and will be available in January. Oh, did I mention shooting?
The biggest area where Tech can make a breakthrough as a team is in their three-point shooting. The lack of multiple long-range threats has been something that has limited their offensive upside for years now. Freshman Michael Devoe led the team in this department at 39.3% which is excellent and figures to only improve with age, but he needs one or two more consistent options on the floor alongside him at all times. Fortunately for Tech, I think there are multiple candidates to fill that role. There’s the aforementioned Usher and another transfer that joins him in Bubba Parham, who shot 39.7% from behind the arc at VMI. There are also some options from within including Kristian Sjolund, who was billed as a 3 pt specialist when he arrived at Tech last season. Sjolund didn’t always get consistent playing time in his first season and occasionally looked like a freshman but also developed a hot hand at times and the ability to hit difficult, contested three-point shots. Overall, the three-pointer is a weapon the Jackets need to better exploit this season if they want to make a jump offensively. Besides the obvious of being worth three points, it can also bring huge energy to a game and can create space for Wright and Banks to work down low.
This is a critical year for coach Pastner. Even with a talented roster there are many questions that still need to be answered. But one thing is for sure, if this group of Yellow Jackets want to be playing in March, it must get better at putting the ball in the basket.