Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Josh Pastner: "Modern miracle" that Georgia Tech is playing for NIT title

In just five months, Josh Pastner has taken inexperienced Georgia Tech roster and molded it into a winner as Yellow Jackets play for NIT championship Thursday. (Photo by the New York Times)

NEW YORK -- When Josh Pastner took over a Georgia Tech program in the lower echelon of the Atlantic Coast Conference, he received several warnings of caution as he began his efforts to resurrect a program once in the same stratosphere with North Carolina, Duke and Maryland in the halcyon days of Bobby Cremins.

The situation in Atlanta was so dire that even CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein, a well-respected college basketball insider who does a better job of finding the positive in every program than any of his contemporaries, predicted that the Yellow Jackets would not win one single ACC game.

Five months later, not only did Georgia Tech win a conference game; of which they captured eight, to be exact, they stand on the precipice of a postseason championship after Tuesday's wire-to-wire win over CSU Bakersfield in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals.

"From where we started, and to where we are now, it's been a remarkable year," Pastner reflected as a fairytale ending hardly anyone could have imagined coming so early in the program's current story lies just 40 minutes away on the horizon. "To be sitting here at 21 wins and playing on Thursday night on national television, it's a credit to the young men, to the players."

Weathered in the coaching ranks through seven seasons at Memphis but still just a spry 39 years of age, Pastner is no stranger to pressure-cooker environments at major basketball schools. It was in 2009 that the former Arizona walk-on, with no head coaching experience to his credit, was called on to replace John Calipari after his former boss picked up and left for Lexington to become the savior at the University of Kentucky. What followed was five postseason appearances and 167 wins on Beale Street to maintain the longtime status quo of success that has since followed him to the home of Coca-Cola, the Braves, and a sleeping giant of sorts in the ACC.

"This is important for our program," he said of this season's NIT run. "This is a major rebuild job. We couldn't give any opportunity to continue to get better and work and improve. The continuation of their development is a big plus for us."

Pastner is no stranger to recruiting top talent and cultivating it, starting with the scores of NBA professionals he helped turn out under Lute Olson at Arizona, to the likes of Tyreke Evans and Will Barton; among others, at Memphis. This season, he appears to have found a gem in freshman Josh Okogie, whose buzzer-beating layup upset then-14th-ranked Notre Dame in January, and turned 6-foot-10 junior Ben Lammers into a burgeoning big man who averages close to a double-double every game. Next year, the Yellow Jackets return the bulk of this year's rotation while welcoming a talented guard in New York's Jose Alvarado, currently of Christ the King High School in Middle Village. Until then, he and his program bask in an opportunity that even the most ambitious of dreamers could not have foreseen happening so quickly.

"I've said it many times, it's a modern miracle," said Pastner of how far the Yellow Jackets have come. "I can remember like yesterday watching our first workouts. If you told me (then) we're playing on Thursday for the NIT championship, I would say you're crazy. I remember at spring meetings, multiple coaches from the league just said, 'It's going to be a hard year for you. You're never going to experience the amount of losing that you're going to go through this year.'"

"It's been a heck of a season. Yes, of course you've got to have good players, but then they've got to be as a team, and when we're in areas where we're playing teams that have better talent than we do, some of our wins have come because that night, we were the better team. It's been a remarkable journey, and a great lesson for me to see it all unfold."

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