At the start of the season, University of Miami basketball fans probably scanned the schedule and penciled in Wednesday’s home game against Georgia Tech as a likely win.
The Yellow Jackets were picked to finish 14th out of 15 teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, had fired coach Brian Gregory and returned no players who averaged more than five points last season. What the prognosticators didn’t know was that new coach Josh Pastner would turn the program around so quickly.
Georgia Tech has gone from an afterthought to an overachieving team poised to make its first NCAA Tournament since 2010.
The Yellow Jackets shocked No. 9 North Carolina 75-63 on Dec. 31 and proved that was no fluke with a 78-56 drubbing of No. 8 Florida State and a 62-60 win over No. 12 Notre Dame.
They are now neck-and-neck with UM in the league standings, both with 6-6 conference records, the Hurricanes holding a slight edge for ninth place with 16 overall wins while Georgia Tech has 15.
Pastner is a leading candidate for conference Coach of the Year. He learned the game under legends Lute Olson and John Calipari, and took over for Calipari at Memphis, where he had the unenviable task of trying to live up to his predecessor.
Though he was hailed as a tireless recruiter, he faced intense pressure and endured harsh criticism when the Tigers didn’t make the postseason in 2015, which hadn’t happened in Memphis in 15 years.
Last summer, he left Memphis for Georgia Tech, where he has become a hero. Ben Lammers, a 6-10 junior who averaged 15 minutes last season, is now the league’s third-leading rebounder and an NBA prospect. He had 17 rebounds and 14 points in a win over Boston College last weekend. Freshman Josh Okogie is having a breakout season.
Tech’s defense is among the stingiest in the nation, and they also lead the ACC in assists.
Asked why he thinks Tech is having so much success, UM coach Jim Larrañaga replied: “Coaching. Josh Pastner is doing an amazing job. The players have really embraced the schemes. They have players who have improved drastically. Lammers has to be considered for most improved in the league. They got a lot of guys playing well. Okogi is really something. Reminds me of Josh Hart from Villanova way he plays.”
Pastner was equally effusive about Larrañaga and the Canes, coming off a five-point loss at No. 4 Louisville.
“Miami’s an NCAA Tournament team, obviously very well coached,” he said on a conference call. “Coach L has over 600 wins. They play hard. They’re athletic, excellent in transition. It’s on the road for us. We’re going to need to be near perfect to have a chance.”
Wednesday: UM men vs. Georgia Tech
When/where: 8 p.m.; Watsco Center.
TV/radio: Ch. 33; WQAM 560.
Records: UM (16-8, 6-6 ACC), Georgia Tech (15-10, 6-6 ACC).
Scouting report: Georgia Tech is the surprise team of the ACC this season, with wins over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame. The Yellow Jackets are coming off a 65-54 win over Boston College in which Tadric Johnson scored a career-high 29 points, and Ben Lammers (14 points, 17 rebounds) and freshman Josh Okogie (12 points, 12 rebounds) had double-doubles.