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Mark Bradley: College hoops amid COVID: Clarity is in short supply
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Mark Bradley: College hoops amid COVID: Clarity is in short supply

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Mark Bradley is a sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Joey Ivansco/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Perhaps you’re disappointed in the season Georgia Tech has had. This was supposed to be Josh Pastner’s best team, and it probably is. But it’s 10-8 overall, 6-6 in ACC play, still trying to patch the damage done in those Thanksgiving week home losses to Georgia State and Mercer.

If the NCAA tournament began today, the Yellow Jackets wouldn’t make it. This observer still believes Tech can fashion a finish that results in its first NCAA bid under this coach. That said, last week’s near-misses against Virginia (again) and Clemson (on a banked 3-pointer) have thrust the Jackets – who have six games left before the ACC tournament – into something approaching elimination mode.

Confession: I can be tough on basketball coaches. In an ordinary time, I’d say that a coach who works five years at an ACC outpost and can’t take his team to the Big Dance is a coach who has failed. Given that we live in a most extraordinary time, I’m not sure I’d levy the same verdict on Pastner. He inherited not very much from Brian Gregory, gone after, ahem, five years. (Pastner’s Jackets are 37-49 in ACC play; Gregory’s were 21-61.)

Complicating matters, Tech landed on NCAA probation due to violations involving Pastner’s friends from hell. Plus, Tech couldn’t have made the 2020 NCAA even if it hadn’t agreed to serve its postseason ban. There was no 2020 NCAA tournament.

Basketball coaches get paid lots of money to make things go right, and their sport isn’t like football, which is a numbers game. Basketball is a talent game. A couple of really good players can change any program. Even though it took Pastner until last fall to sign even a 4-star player from Georgia – guard Miles Kelly of Lilburn and Hargrave Academy was the first – he has been deft at turning lesser recruits into quality collegians. (Jose Alvarado was a 3-star signee. Moses Wright, as Pastner never lets us forget, was a “no-star.”)

In an ordinary time, Year 5 should have told the tale on Pastner. His Year 5 is a pandemic year. Here’s how six Hall of Fame coaches are faring: John Calipari’s Kentucky is 6-13; Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke is 8-8; Tom Izzo’s Michigan State is 10-8, having lost to Rutgers 67-37; Roy Williams’ North Carolina is 12-7; Bill Self’s Kansas is 15-7; Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse is 12-6. Only Kansas, at No. 23, is included in this week’s Associated Press poll. Only Kansas makes Jerry Palm’s latest bracket for CBS Sports.

Those six coaches have combined for 12 NCAA titles and 42 Final Four runs. The last Final Four not to include one of the six was in 2007, when Florida won at the Georgia Dome. Those guys know what they’re doing. In the time of COVID, does anybody really know what to do?

Baylor is undefeated. It faced only one significant opponent (Illinois) before New Year’s. Its most recent game was played Feb. 2. Due to five consecutive postponements, the Bears aren’t scheduled to play again until Saturday. Gonzaga is also unbeaten. It has worked three games in February. Once-beaten Michigan played its first game since Jan. 22 on Sunday at Wisconsin. The Wolverines trailed by 12 at the half; they won by eight.

As of Jan. 5, Duke had played five games. Georgia Tech played its ninth game on Jan. 3; its 10th would come 13 days later. Florida State went 15 days between games over the holidays; it just went another 13 days without playing. Louisville has played once since Jan. 26.

From Jan. 2 through Feb. 8, Georgia State played three times. (Coach Rob Lanier contracted COVID over that span.) The Panthers beat Georgia Southern here Thursday and were headed to Statesboro for a Saturday rematch when they learned the second GSU-GSU game had been postponed. At 10:01 a.m. Monday, Georgia State announced it has paused team activities due to contract tracing. It’s scheduled to finish its regular season having played 19 times. Belmont of the Ohio Valley Conference has already played 23 games.

Pastner has spent two months ruing his decision not to have full-contact workouts before the losses to Georgia State and Mercer. In his defense, he was trying to ensure that his team was healthy. In so doing, he wound up with a team that had barely practiced. This is all – here’s that word again – unprecedented. Nobody knows what’s right. Nobody can be sure if anything’s right.

Ergo, I’m not willing to read much into a season that has been pocked with stops and starts. Gonzaga has had 10 games postponed/canceled. Georgia has had only one – the opener against Columbus State was nixed two hours before tipoff – but the Bulldogs’ season has been arrhythmic.

They won all their non-conference games, none against especially difficult opposition. They lost their first four SEC games. They’re 12-8, having lost to Arkansas and Alabama by 30-plus points and to South Carolina by 24. They’re 98th in the NCAA’s NET rankings.

Tom Crean arrived in March 2018 talking big – and at length – but 2-plus years have passed and little has happened. Crean is 39-45 at Georgia, 12-37 in SEC play. That’s not what anybody in Athens had in mind. Still, the Bulldogs have won as many conference games this season as they did with Anthony Edwards, the NBA’s No. 1 pick.

As deflating as it was not to get more from Edwards’ one year, we say again: Every team missed the 2020 NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs were picked to finish next-to-last in the 14-team SEC this season; they’re tied for ninth, one spot below Kentucky, which they beat.

The belief remains that Crean, given time, will do nice things. The belief is also that almost every coach in these United States, from the great Krzyzewski on down, should get a pass on last season, which ended abruptly, and this, which is scheduled to finish with an NCAA tournament conducted within the borders of Indiana. Selection Sunday is 27 days away. For everyone involved with college hoops, it can’t get here too soon.

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