Mark Bradley: Georgia Tech's not-so-secret door to hoops redemption? Players.
Published in Basketball
ATLANTA — Josh Pastner isn’t out of work because he couldn’t draw up a nifty inbounds play. He won an ACC tournament with players no NBA team deemed worthy of drafting. Georgia Tech fired Pastner because he was forever facing an uphill slog, which shouldn’t happen to an ACC program based in Atlanta.
Referring to a different sport, another Georgian — Kirby Smart — said, “You can’t outcoach recruiting.” That’s truer in basketball than in any other sport. Virginia is considered a clever team, but Tony Bennett wouldn’t have become a national champ without NBA draftees De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. (Since they left, the Cavaliers are 0-2 in the Big Dance, having lost to 13th seeds Ohio U. and Furman.)
Bobby Cremins’ teams won three ACC tournaments and made the 1990 Final Four. Paul Hewitt’s Yellow Jackets twice played Duke to the wire in ACC finals and faced UConn for the 2004 national championship. Under those two coaches, Tech produced 17 Round 1 picks. In the 12 seasons since, Tech has had one player drafted — Josh Okogie, who committed to play for Brian Gregory and spent one season under Pastner.
An exhaustive study isn’t required. Since 2016, here are lottery picks from Atlanta alone — Jaylen Brown of Wheeler, Wendell Carter of Pace Academy, Collin Sexton of Pebblebrook, Anthony Edwards of Holy Spirit Prep, Isaac Okoro of McEachern, Jabari Smith of Sandy Creek. All but Edwards left the state for their one college season. The nation’s top prospect – Isaiah Collier of Wheeler – signed with USC.
Tech needed three days to fill its coaching vacancy. Damon Stoudamire is a reach — he was a head coach at Pacific of the Big West Conference — but his NBA career, as both player and assistant coach, could render him a persuasive presence to NBA-level talent. The ACC was down this season, but it’s not as if the famous league has disappeared from basic cable.
The ACC is a lure. Atlanta is a lure. The right recruiter at Tech could build a contender without getting on a plane.
From 1985 through 2010, Tech played 35 NCAA Tournament games. Over the years since, the Jackets have graced March Madness once. This program went a quarter-century as a major national player. Back in the day, Tech and Duke were fierce foes. (The happiest day in Institute annals was April 3, 2004, when the Jackets beat Oklahoma State on Will Bynum’s layup on Semifinal Saturday and sat back to watch Duke blow a lead against Connecticut.)
Tech was 27-61 in ACC play under Gregory, who came from Dayton and seemed in over his head. It was 51-77 under Pastner. That’s a winning percentage of .361 over a dozen years. The average crowd at McCamish Pavilion this season was 4,713. None of the ACC’s 14 other teams averaged below 5,200. Apart from three giddy days in Greensboro two years ago, the Jackets have ceased to matter.
The way up from oblivion is obvious. The transfer portal is a powerful tool — some Georgians who signed to play elsewhere could get homesick — but the portal cannot be a substitute for recruiting. Those six local lottery picks mentioned above didn’t stay in school long enough to transfer.
If you’re going to coach in Georgia, you must land players from Georgia. If you can’t, you should go coach elsewhere. Tech was slow off the mark NIL-wise — how that happened, I’ll never know — but I’m confident that J Batt, the athletic director previously employed in Tuscaloosa, will course-correct. It makes no sense to hand-pick a coach and leave him hamstrung.
I’m not sure what sort of tactician Stoudamire is — my viewing of college hoops doesn’t stretch to the Pacific Tigers — but at this moment I don’t care. Pastner turned Moses Wright into the ACC player of the year, but in Wright’s absence, the Jackets reverted to sub-mediocrity.
There was a time when Tech basketball was something to behold. There’s only one way that happens again. Get better players.
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