People have said many things about Josh Pastner over the last few years, but no one has ever called him stupid. He’s actually fairly brilliant in many respects - he finished college in 2.5 years taking up to 33 units per semester- and as a head coach he’s still quite young. So why has he taken so much heat for his tenure at Memphis?
We’d argue three basic reasons: first, immense expectations. And second, following John Calipari wasn’t easy. Third, simply put, is performance.
Pastner is a highly unique case. As we said, he’s quite brilliant and and has worked towards being a coach since he was five. At 13 he was running a scouting report and at 16 he ran a Houston AAU team for his father.
Arizona made him a recruited walk-on specifically for his coaching potential. He left Tucson to take a job with John Calipari at Memphis where he helped establish a high level of talent.
When he took over though, Memphis was (and remained reasonably) well-stocked with talent, he struggled to win big games. He made the NIT his first year, the NCAA the next four and nothing his last two years. Despite his struggles, real or perceived, and despite his program’s decline, Pastner never had a losing season and only his last two were under twenty wins.
Still, it was clear that the administration was less than thrilled with his performance and he was said to be if not on a hot seat at least to be sitting on a warm bench.
His reputation as a wunderkind took a big hit. For all his brilliance, he couldn’t maintain the excitement that Calipari injected into that program. Attendance declined. Players were transferring at a rapid pace and it seemed that Pastner would last maybe one more season. Tiger Shaq Goodwin gave a startling interview to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal which had to be damaging.
Then, in one of the biggest surprises of the off-season, Georgia Tech canceled any buyout concerns Memphis might have had with Pastner by hiring the young coach away.
The Atlanta media was bewildered but largely accepted the hire for two reasons: despite his perceived flaws, Pastner was still very young for a head coach (he’s 39) and for another, the Tech job just isn’t what it used to be.
And you could now argue that the Bobby Cremins era was the exception rather than what anyone should expect.
Cremins, who learned his craft from South Carolina coach Frank McGuire, came to Tech from Appalachian State where he had a six-year record of 100-70. Not much by ACC standards but spectacular in Boone.
It took him two years to get things going at Tech, but from 1983-84 to 1992-93, the Yellowjackets were among the nation’s elite.
Cremins coached Tech for another six years, but it was a program in decline and as he demonstrated at South Carolina, after a devastating ACC Tournament loss, Cremins, despite his Peter Pan persona, didn’t handle losing well (after the loss, he left campus for a couple of weeks), a theme which was repeated when he stepped aside mid-season at Charleston.
Paul Hewitt replaced Cremins and exceeded his 1989-90 Final Four appearance with an NCAA championship game appearance in 2003-04.
Yet Tech declined again, falling to 11-17 just two years later. Hewitt finished with three losing seasons in his final six.Only an insane buyout kept him around.
Then Tech went after Dayton’s Brian Gregory. Generally admired for his character and for a strong relationship with his players, Gregory didn’t recruit well and finished 76-86 at Georgia Tech.
So now it’s Pastner’s turn and this year, at least, he’ll have minimal talent and he’ll have to overcome the perception that, despite his considerable intellect, his people skills are not that strong.
He didn’t help when he said publicly that he wouldn’t hire any assistants who golfed before golfing himself. Yes he’s the boss, but still.
On the other hand though, he is very smart and surely he has thought about any shortcomings at Memphis.
So it’s encouraging that he reached out to successful leaders to find out what has worked for them. It’s perhaps a backhanded way to acknowledge his shortcomings. We’ll have to wait to see how he applies the lessons, but the primary one is t”hat the players have to align their values to his,” which are said to be “ toughness, positive energy and self-motivation.“
That seems fair. He’ll need it this season.
Tech had some reasonable talent last year. Charles Mitchell, who transferred from Maryland, whipped himself into great shape and was productive inside, almost averaging a double-double. Adam Smith, who transferred from Virginia Tech, was a reliable three point shooter, one of the best in the ACC and put up 15 ppg. Nick Jacobs, who transferred from Alabama, helped out. James White, who transferred from Arkansas-LIttle Rock (you’ll notice a theme building here) did alright.
Marcus Georges-Hunt, who was a four-year player, was a solid ACC player who average 16.7 ppg.
Travis Jorgenson chose not to return, a choice perhaps encouraged by Pastner.
The top scorer returning is Quinton Stephens, who is a 6-9 senior who has yet to top 200 lbs. He averaged 5 ppg.
Jodan Price, 6-6 is at his third school. He started at DePaul then transferred to Eastern Michigan where he shot 30.2% from the floor and 60% from the line.Presumably he’s not there for his offense.
Oft-injured point guard Corey Heyward, who played in eight games last year, returns. He’s had consistent knee problems. It’d be nice for him to finish well.
Josh Heath is also back. He played 17.6 mpg last season and averaged 2.7 ppg and 2.8 apg.
Junior Ben Lammers brings some size at 6-11 and 227. Last season he was listed at 241. He might benefit from conditioning and natural maturation. Last year he played nearly 15 mpg and averaged 3.6 and 4 rpg.
Junior Tadric Jackson, 6-2, could improve as well. He averaged 4.7 ppg last year, including 15 against Duke.
Abdoulaye Gueye, who redshirted last year, is 6-9. He is a bit of a shotblocker and has a 7-3 wingspan.
Sylvester Ogbonda also redshirted last year. He’s 6-10 and 230 and also seen as a shotblocker.
Pastner brings in four freshmen: guards Justin Moore (6-4), Shaheed Medlock, (6-5) and Josh Okogie (6-4). Forward Christian Matthews (6-7) rounds out the class.
Moore got jumped-up a bit - he had committed to Tulane and also considered Pacific. He could end up starting at point. He averaged 20.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 2.4 steals as senior. His coach praised his ball handling and vision.
Medlock is on an academic scholarship but has a great reputation as a defender.
Okogie committed to Tech before Gregory was let go. He’s seen as an average talent but as we know, rankings never measure character or hard work, so let’s see how he does.
As for young Matthews, his high school coach, Trevor Brown, says he’s a natural scorer: “From looking at the team last year, (Tech) had a problem with their wings and guards putting the ball in the basket,” Brown told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “(Matthews) is one of those kids that can really put the ball in the basket from a lot of different ways. From the three-point line, to mid-range, to getting to the rim, he’s a real scorer.”
He was down to Tech and NC State, saying this about the Pack: “NC State was really only talking about basketball. Like they really didn’t talk about the bond the team has. Georgia Tech has that.”
Everyone at Tech understands this is a rebuilding program and that the pieces have to be put in place. This season is about that much more than wins.
Still, there are intriguing pieces. If Pastner can be consistent with people and get everyone on the same page, the Yellowjackets could pull off a few upsets this season. The program could then begin to appeal to recruits. And for Pastner, that’s bound to be part of the draw of the Georgia Tech job.
Georgia produces a ton of talent and very little of it stays home. Georgia Tech should be the best basketball program in the state, year in and year out. If Pastner can continue his tradition of high-end recruiting, if he can control his natural territory and retain his players, there’s no reason why Georgia Tech can’t become a tremendous program again.
A lot will depend though on what Pastner, the brilliant and admired student, can learn about himself.