For Georgia Tech, hopes of ‘turning the corner’ after loss to No. 2 Duke

Following Georgia Tech’s 69-57 loss at No. 2 Duke on Tuesday night, coach Josh Pastner offered a hope for the future.

“I never want to die,” the Yellow Jackets coach said at the end of his opening remarks about the game. “I want to live forever. I love life. I actually told that to the scorer’s table. I said, ‘Man, what a beautiful atmosphere.’ So I hope I can get to 100. I’d love to get to 110.”

The context, such as it was for the oft-scattershot coach, was Pastner expressing his appreciation for the atmosphere at raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium as the Jackets played their final scheduled game against Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, and also after he hailed Barry Jacobs, a longtime North Carolina-based sports writer.

A little while later, two of Pastner’s players offered projections for a nearer-term possibility for their team, now 6-7 after the loss to Duke.

“It’s a long road (remaining), but I feel like we’re turning the corner,” forward Khalid Moore said. “It’s been a tough little patch for us, but I feel like we’ve learned a lot, and we’ve just got to learn from it and get better from here on out.”

The Jackets’ recent patch has indeed been as nettlesome and barbed as perhaps as any in Division I. Tech has lost six of its past seven, its poorest seven-game stretch since losing seven ACC games in a row in the 2018-19 season on its way to a 14-18 record. Of the six teams that beat the Jackets in this stretch, five are in the top 35 of the KenPom rankings (Duke, LSU, USC, North Carolina and Wisconsin) with a combined record of 58-7 going into Wednesday’s games. The sixth is Louisville, no slouch at 9-4 before its Wednesday game, 52nd in KenPom and an opponent whom the Jackets played in their first game out of their COVID-19 pause.

One bright spot for Tech (111th in KenPom) is that, of the Jackets’ remaining 17 games (not counting postponed games against Syracuse and Alabama A&M), only three are against teams inside the top 40 of KenPom.

Another is that, slowly, the Jackets are showing some signs of improvement, even in defeat. It’s those indicators that gave guard Michael Devoe a similar hunch as Moore.

“I feel like we’re turning the corner, though,” said Devoe, asked if he was feeling frustrated. “I feel like we’re truly getting better. I feel like we’re adjusting to things and all that type of stuff. We’ve had a tough schedule this year. For us, we’ve got to get the young guys on board with what we do and what Georgia Tech basketball really is. I think they’re starting to buy into that.”

The Jackets have improved at holding onto the ball, a trouble spot earlier in the season. The defense appears to be improving on the whole. While Duke obviously was rusty as it came off its own pause, the Jackets had some defensive breakdowns but played physical and clingy against the Blue Devils, who shot a season-low 37.3%.

“It was just a toughness thing, playing up on the ball, being aggressive on all the ball screens, reading the screens, getting up on ‘em, making ‘em have to think about their next pass, stuff like that,” said Moore, who at times guarded potential first overall draft pick Paolo Banchero, a player three inches taller.

Tech’s two defensive issues against Duke were, first, losing the battle on Duke’s offensive glass as the Blue Devils scored 17 second-chance points to Tech’s eight. Second, officials called 27 fouls on the Jackets to 14 against Duke, allowing for a 40-12 discrepancy in free-throw attempts, the widest gap in favor of a Tech opponent since at least the 2010-11 season, according to

“We would prefer to get to the free-throw line more than just 12 times, but I’m going to take the high road on it,” Pastner said. “I know the officials have a tough job.”

Tech figures to be better whenever center Rodney Howard can come back from an ankle injury that has held him out of the past two games after he had started the first 11. Likewise, guard Bubba Parham, in his second game of the season after missing the first 11 coming back from knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, looked a little more comfortable against Duke than he had in his season debut against Louisville, with three assists and no turnovers (although he was 0-for-5, all 3-point tries) in 27 minutes.

A big question for Tech going forward – its next scheduled game is 6 p.m. Saturday at home against Notre Dame – is whether its interior offensive play can improve. The post trio of Howard, Saba Gigiberia and Jordan Meka has scored a total of 90 points in 13 games. Their potential is clear, but Tech would be helped by them collectively making more of an impact on offense.

Shot selection and finishing ability also is a work in progress for the Jackets guards around the basket, particularly point guards Kyle Sturdivant and Deivon Smith, who didn’t play against Duke. Tech’s two-point field-goal percentage for the season was 47.1% after the Duke game, 262nd in Division I and eight percentage points lower than last season.

Tech’s offensive limitations allowed Duke to seize control of the game at the end of the first half. Scoring only two points in the final 5:31 of the half, the Jackets gave up a 13-2 run that went a long way to putting the game out of reach. It was similar to droughts that have sabotaged the Jackets in previous games. Before the Duke game, the Jackets had had five consecutive games in which they went at least four minutes without scoring in the second half.

If Pastner can guide the Jackets around that corner and find a way to score more consistently, their chances in their remaining 16 regular-season games (not including the two postponed games) should be far better than they were in the past seven.

Perhaps not as hopeful as an aspiration to live interminably. But certainly better.