GLENDALE, ARIZ. — Before we get around to Final Four stuff, a word about Georgia Tech: We’re about to see if its run to the NIT final will indeed be a springboard to anything worth springing toward. We’re about to see if Josh Pastner can leverage the good will arising from a surprisingly decent season into landing M.J. Walker of Jonesboro, the highest-rated Georgian yet to commit.
At the McDonald’s All-Star Game this week, Walker told ESPN’s Paul Biancardi that his finalists were Tech, Florida State, Kansas, Maryland, UCLA, Ohio State and Virginia Tech. All save Tech and Ohio State played in the NCAA tournament. According to 247Sports, Florida State is seen as the leader, with Maryland second. Others have suggested it’s down to FSU and GT.
Not to name-drop, but I ran into the greatest player in Georgia Tech history at a media party here Thursday night. We talked about what Pastner has to do if he’s to become a serious player in ACC circles. “Get the blue-chippers,” said Kenny Anderson, who was one himself. “Got to get the blue-chippers.”
This recruiting class was always going to be difficult. Pastner was hired in April, meaning he had seven months to try to sway players other coaches had been wooing for 3 1/2 years. He had no real shot at Wendell Carter Jr. of Pace Academy, or Collin Sexton of Pebblebrook, who had a big summer and shot up the respective rankings. (Alabama signed Sexton, marking another missed opportunity for Mark Fox, who surely knows the way to Mableton. Georgia’s Derek Ogbeide is a Pebblebrook alum.)
But Walker is still out there, and he’d be a massive get for a program in need of one. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pastner — known as a strong recruiter — should have access to a higher level of recruit working in the ACC and based in Atlanta than he had in Memphis. Walker is the kind of guy he needs, even if Walker becomes a one-and-done. (The bad thing about one-and-dones is that they leave; the good thing is that they tend to be difference-makers.)
Walker is ranked 19th among ESPN’s top 100, 22nd on 247’s composite board. He’s a McDonald’s All-American. Know the last McDonald’s man who signed with Tech? Derrick Favors in 2009.
You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a bit less enthused about Tech making the NIT finals — and losing by a record-tying 32 points — that maybe you think I should be. The NIT is the rough equivalent of the Belk Bowl: It’s where you end up when you don’t get to go where you wanted to be. No big-name recruit picks a program thinking, “Goody! Now I can play in the NIT!”
There’s no question that Pastner has made a bright start. Still, if you go by cold numbers, Tech in Year 1 under its new coach was actually a bit worse — 21-16, as opposed to 21-15 — than in Year Last under Brian Gregory. Don’t misunderstand: Pastner is an upgrade over Gregory, who’d taken the Jackets as far as he could, which turned out to be the NIT quarterfinals. Pastner beat North Carolina, which is something Gregory never did. (Very soon now, we could be seeing bumper stickers that read: “Georgia Tech 75, National Champions 63.”)
Pastner got way more from Gregory’s leftovers than Gregory would have. But that level of player isn’t going to propel Tech back to the only tournament that matters. Pastner needs a signature recruit. M.J. Walker would fit the bill.