It was only last spring a team of limited resources coming off a coaching change played longer into its tournament than a team of massive gifts guided by maybe the greatest coach ever. Granted, Georgia Tech was working in the second-rate NIT while Duke graced, albeit briefly, the Big Dance. Still, the Yellow Jackets were vying for a trophy in Madison Square Garden long after the Blue Devils limped home wondering how they’d lost to South Carolina.
We mention that bit of history because it’s apt to be the only thing Tech has to lord over Duke for … well, as long as Mike Krzyzewski is Lord of Krzyzewskiville. The teams convened at McCamish Pavilion on Sunday with neither happy about its season, but the disappointment was relative. The Dookies, with five losses, haven’t yet played like the nation’s most talented team; Tech has gone from pleasantly surprising in Year 1 under Josh Pastner to pitiable in Year 2.
Duke was missing the best player in the land, but Atlanta hoop fans shouldn’t fret just yet. Marvin Bagley III could be employed by the NBA’s Hawks very soon. Without the ACC’s leading scorer and rebounder, the Devils were so undermanned they could beat Tech only 80-69.
Having gone the one-and-done route as deeply as Kentucky (and lately with much better players), Duke is expected – and expects – to win the NCAA title every single year. Last season’s Round of 32 flameout was a major whiff. This March/April should be better, provided Krzyzewski can teach his Devils to guard somebody. That used to be a given with the great man’s teams, but when you’re counting on freshmen every year, there are no guarantees.
Duke entered having lost two in a row, the latest being a galling loss to North Carolina, which never plays well in Durham. Five hours before tipoff, the Devils announced that Bagley would miss the game with a knee strain. Might the preseason No. 1 team hit Valentine’s Day having dropped three in a row?
Nah. Duke never trailed. It led by 17 at the half, by 26 with 16 minutes left. Tech fashioned a nice little rally, pulling within 12 and forcing Krzyzewski to call timeout, which he was trying not to do, and then within nine. But reality reared its head, as reality will. The Jackets exited at 11-14, 4-8 in ACC play. They won’t be going to the NIT this March.
This Tech season has been a strange and sad tableau. Jose Alvarado, the freshman point guard being asked to work 40 minutes, left after 12 Sunday. He’d banged his elbow on the court. He was taken to the hospital for X-rays. They revealed a dislocated elbow. Pastner said he might miss the rest of the season.
Tech’s comeback, such as it was, came with Josh Okogie playing the point. He did pretty well, finishing with 29 points and four assists. “That shows the character of their team,” Krzyzewski said. (This was Coach K in gracious-winner mode.) “They were a man down, an important man, and in some ways they played the second half better.”
Pastner is coaching while being investigated by an Institute-commissioned “outside, independent” party. This investigation was announced Friday, one day after Jennifer Pendley, the girlfriend of Pastner-pal-turned-nemesis Ron Bell, filed suit alleging 14 instances of sexual assault/harassment by Pastner, some of which she claims happened on Tech property.
Pastner has denied Pendley’s claims in the strongest possible terms – he said there was “zero truth” in her lawsuit, repeating the word “zero” 15 more times – and contended he is “absolutely the victim.” (He had previously sued Bell and Pendley for defamation and attempted blackmail and extortion.) Pastner has also seen two players suspended by the NCAA for receiving impermissible benefits (from Bell) and assistant Darryl LaBarrie resign after being placed on leave, a move apparently forced by a different NCAA case.
Meanwhile, his team has fallen to pieces. The Jackets have lost seven of eight, the ACC having proved – this isn’t a huge surprise, though last season’s team held up rather well – too good for them. We’ll never know if Pastner’s association with Bell/Pendley launched this team on a river of no return, but the access allowed these “friends” makes it hard to see him as an utter victim.
“It’s been remarkable, this stuff,” Pastner said, though “remarkable” isn’t the right word. Then: “I know the truth. Life throws you some curveballs, and you’ve got to keep focused.”
Last season was one the Jackets wanted to keep going and going. This has become one that cannot end too soon. The coach is under scrutiny for sexual assault/harassment. The team isn’t very good. It’s not a happy time for anyone.