ATLANTA — Josh Pastner has never been part of a losing season. Not as a player. Not as an assistant coach. Not as a head coach.
He knows, in all likelihood, that’s going to change.
The former Memphis coach opened practice Monday with his new team, leading a Georgia Tech program that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2010 and lost nearly all of its scoring punch from Brian Gregory’s final season.
Pastner bluntly assessed the challenge he faces in his first year with the Yellow Jackets.
“It’s a startup company. They’ve hit the reset button,” Pastner said. “Basically, start from ground zero and try to build it back up, and knowing that it’s going to take some time to do that. They didn’t make that decision saying we’ve got to try to win right now, that it’s make or break this year. It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re just kind of completely blowing it up and starting over.'”
With his job on the line, Gregory went all in with a team built around seniors and graduate transfers. It didn’t work; Gregory was fired after the Yellow Jackets only managed to qualify for the NIT.
The 39-year-old Pastner was lured away from Memphis, where he was under a bit of heat after missing the NCAA tournament the last two seasons. He takes over a depleted roster that lost five players who combined to average 55.8 points and 25.6 rebounds per game last season.
Georgia Tech’s top returning scorer is senior Quinton Stephens, who averaged 6.0 points a game. The squad is filled out by three freshmen, a redshirt freshman, a sophomore who redshirted last season and two graduate transfers.
“We shouldn’t be judged on wins and losses,” Pastner said. “I think what’s got to be looked at: Do we get better from day one to the last day? There might be some days when you just can’t look at the scoreboard.”
The players realize what they’re up against.
“It’s kind of like you have nothing to lose. Might as well go out there and give it your all,” said junior center Ben Lammers, who will certainly be expected to improve on his averages (1.2 points, 1.5 rebounds) from last season. “There’s no pressure on us. Obviously, we’ll have a big chip on our shoulder going into most of our games. We’ll use that to our advantage, definitely.”
The Yellow Jackets have only two players who started at least 10 games last season: senior guard Josh Heath and senior forward Quinton Stephens. The new coaching staff is counting on them to help the tone that others will follow in the seasons to come, an important steppingstone even though they are unlikely to reap the benefits.
“My role will be to lead the team and really bring a fire to Georgia Tech. We’re building a culture here, really establishing that culture,” Stephens said. “We’ve already got some commits (for next season) and they’re going to be able to bring something to the table. I just want to build that standard, and it can only grow from there.”
Pastner is a top-notch recruiter, and he knows that’s the only way to build a consistent winning program at Georgia Tech.
“We’ve got to get a couple of studs to change the complexion,” he said. “The great thing in basketball is you only need two or three studs.”
Like so many others, he sees Georgia Tech as having all the elements needed to be a consistent national contender. There are state-of-the-art facilities, its location in the heart of a major urban area, and plenty of tradition and weight that comes with being a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
For some reason, the Yellow Jackets haven’t been able to take advantage.
“People bring that up. They’re like, ‘Man, you should be able to build a national powerhouse there,'” Pastner said. “There’s great potential here. But potential is a scary word, too. And hope doesn’t win you games, either. But we’re doing everything we can. It’s just going to take a little time.”