Coach K: Georgia Tech ‘right in there’

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski knows Georgia Tech counterpart Brian Gregory’s pain and wouldn’t mind inflicting some more of it.

When the Yellow Jackets play the No. 4 Blue Devils on Wednesday night in Durham, N.C. (7 p.m., ESPN2), they’ll try once again to rid themselves of their seemingly intractable habit of losing close games. Saturday’s overtime defeat against N.C. State at McCamish Pavilion — 81-80 in overtime on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer — was Tech’s sixth in ACC play in which the scoring margin at the one-minute mark of regulation was three points or less. It was Tech’s second conference defeat in overtime, leaving the Jackets at 1-8 in the league, in last place.

Tech’s struggles remind Krzyzewski of his final season as coach at Army before he was hired by Duke in 1980. Army was 9-17 overall and 4-8 in games decided by five points or fewer or in overtime, including four defeats by two points or fewer.

Speaking on the ACC coaches teleconference Monday, Krzyzewski praised that team’s fight and said, “I was really pleased with what my kids did. But it didn’t show up in the record. I think that’s a little bit of what’s happening with Georgia Tech. They’ve shown up. They had that one game against Virginia where they just couldn’t score, but the other games, come on — they’re right in there with every one of them.”

Tech’s string of close finishes is indicative of what is happening in the ACC this season. Going into Tuesday’s games, 26 of the 66 league games had been decided by four points or fewer or in overtime. Krzyzewski said Monday that he thought the league was the toughest it has been, top to bottom.

He recognized that teams in the lower third of the league have played a number of one-possession games, which he called “incredibly unusual” for a league. While being recognized as incredibly unusual is not exactly a consolation, it is indeed Tech’s reality.

“If you give them seven possessions, and Brian is able to just say, ‘OK, I’m going to be successful on those seven possessions,’ he might have six or seven more wins,” Krzyzewski said. “Like Saturday. They played their butts off and played well and (forward Marcus) Georges-Hunt was spectacular. What a heartbreaking loss. And they still come back over and over. So sometimes, some of your best coaching jobs are done in those type of situations.”

Ultimately, the 1-8 record through the first half of the season has inhaled the Jackets’ margin for error for what most would constitute a successful season. At this point, at 10-11 overall, simply finishing above .500 will be an achievement. After Duke, the second half of Tech’s ACC schedule still includes two games with No. 12 North Carolina, one with No. 9 Louisville and two with perennial thorn Clemson, which has somehow managed to defeat the Jackets the past 10 games.

“The thing is, you’re playing against really good teams,” Gregory said. “We’re competing and our guys are fighting and we’re doing a lot of good things. And now the next step for us is either to get a break here or there, get a call here or there, because those things are important, too, in those situations.”

The breaks may be hard to come by in Cameron Indoor Stadium. On top of Duke’s near-invincible status in its gym, the Blue Devils excel at Tech’s strength — rebounding. Through Monday’s games, the Blue Devils ranked No. 4 in the ACC in rebounding margin (plus-6.9), just one spot behind the Jackets (plus-8.8).

Further, Cameron has not been a charitable venue. Tech has lost seven in a row at Cameron and 14 of its past 15 there. The past two Tech teams to win there won the ACC regular-season title (1996) or went to the national championship game (2004). Tech has lost seven in a row overall to Duke.