SNELLVILLE – During a wildly successful debut season as Georgia Tech’s men’s basketball coach, Josh Pastner identified a few factors that will decide if he can return the Yellow Jackets to prominence in the ACC.
One, and perhaps most crucial, would be his and his coaching staff’s accuracy in evaluating high school talent.
“We can’t miss,” Pastner said during the annual Georgia Sports Writers Association banquet Sunday. “We’ve got to be perfect in our evaluation.”
One of Pastner’s more hectic evaluations was of South Forsyth senior Evan Cole.
The 6-foot-9 forward committed to Georgia Tech in early May, a month after being released from his letter of intent with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Pastner is excited about what Cole could become at Georgia Tech.
“I really think he’s one of those guys that’s going to happen where it’s like, ‘Where did you guys find him?’ He’s one of those guys, because he’s good,” Pastner said. “I think he has a chance to be a really good player.”
This time last year, Cole was just starting to register on college coaches’ radars. He was coming off something of a breakout junior season at South after averaging a double-double to lead the War Eagles to the state playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. But he had missed time early in the season while still recovering from an injury, and he hadn’t played on a prominent AAU team that could enhance his standing in recruiting circles.
So Cole joined the Atlanta All-Stars and played in some showcases, and mid-major programs took notice. By last July, he had nearly 20 scholarship offers from the likes of Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Valparaiso and Wofford. Cole eventually committed to UNC-Wilmington, an up-start program at the time coming off a NCAA Tournament appearance under head coach Kevin Keatts.
“Coach Keatts got a steal at Wilmington,” Pastner said.
After Keatts led UNC-Wilmington to the NCAA Tournament again this past March, he left for N.C. State, and he wanted Cole to come with him. Cole even took a visit to the Raleigh campus.
But Keatts had other programs to contend with – like Georgia Tech.
“We jumped in right away,” Pastner said. “… If he had played on the spring circuit like an unsigned senior does and he played – because he's a legit 6-foot-9, and he's a really good athlete, and he can shoot; you know there's things he can do offensively – every school would've been after him,” Pastner said. “So we were fortunate that he was sort of in our backyard in a sense. He wasn't highly-recruited, so he wasn't well-known, and he wasn't in that circuit where everybody saw him. He was under the radar.”
Cole joins a Georgia Tech program with rising optimism. Pastner came to the Yellow Jackets after going 167-73 in seven seasons at Memphis, including missing the NCAA Tournament in his last two seasons. Not good enough for Memphis’ rabid fan base, especially following John Calipari’s remarkable success before leaving for Kentucky. “Memphis’ $1.25M castoff,” was how one CBSSports.com headline read.
“I was dissected, debated, talked about for 24/7/265 for seven straight years at Memphis,” Pastner said. “Let me tell you something – I loved every second of it, and I didn’t take it for granted.”
Perhaps that made his first season at Georgia Tech especially meaningful. Pastner inherited a team predicted to finish last in the ACC and not win a single conference game. Instead, the Yellow Jackets went 21-16 overall and 8-10 in the ACC. They won three games against top 25 teams, including eventual national champion UNC, and finished runner-up in the NIT. Pastner was named the ACC Coach of the Year.
Pastner didn’t have those credentials to bring on recruiting trips in the metro Atlanta area during the early signing period this past November, and it hurt.
"We missed on a lot in the first signing period. We missed on a lot,” Pastner said. “We went for some home runs. I mean, we did. I think if some of the kids waited that we were right there knew who we were after the season would've signed with us.”
But he didn’t miss on Cole.
“We were fortunate,” Pastner said. “We were very fortunate.”