In Georgia Tech’s win over Duke, ‘Waldo’ beats Mike Krzyzewski

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner appeals to a referee in the second half Tuesday, March 2, 2021, against Duke at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner appeals to a referee in the second half Tuesday, March 2, 2021, against Duke at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On a night when his team’s NCAA Tournament chances took a body shot, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski offered a string of pearls for his opponent and its coach.

Krzyzewski praised Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright as “outstanding” and hailed the Yellow Jackets as “a veteran team” after their 81-77 overtime win at McCamish Pavilion on Tuesday night. He even followed Notre Dame coach Mike Brey in sharing his appreciation for the home-court advantage that the Jackets have enjoyed this season.

“Josh (Pastner) has done a great job with his team,” Krzyzewski said. “They’ve created a great environment. I think they’re 8-1 at home (in ACC play). So they have a band, they have cheerleaders, they have a certain amount of fans, and that helps. It helps you. There’s no question about it. But, congratulations to them. They took another step forward to an NCAA berth, which, that would be great for their program and very well-deserved with the job that he’s done.”

For Pastner, it was a thrilling extension of a season that increasingly looks like it will achieve its mission, Tech’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Among the many achievements that were checked off with Tech’s 10th ACC win of the season — first back-to-back seasons with double-digit ACC wins in team history and the first five-game winning streak against ACC competition since the 1995-96 season. It also marked a personal accomplishment for Pastner. After five consecutive losses to Duke since his hire at Tech, Pastner notched his first win over the man he calls (at every opportunity) perhaps the greatest coach of all-time regardless of sport.

Credit: ACC

After 11 years and 14-straight losses, the Yellow Jackets tasted victory at the Blue Devils’ expense, squeezing out an 81-77 overtime win at McCamish Pavilion.

Credit: ACC

Virginia remains the lone ACC team whom Pastner’s teams have yet to defeat. However, Pastner can boast of a most impressive set of pelts accumulated this season — Kentucky’s John Calipari, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and, now, Krzyzewski. While each coach’s team is unquestionably enduring down seasons — Calipari and Krzyzewski historically so — they’re all in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. You can also add in Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton and Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, whose Hall of Fame candidacies Pastner eagerly endorses.

Pastner, who unfailingly touts opposing coaches’ credentials in what seems sincere admiration and respect, declined to take a personal victory lap Tuesday night.

“There’s nothing about Josh Pastner and Coach K because it’s like, the last two games, it was Coach K and Jim Boeheim,” he said. “And then there’s me. Like, where’s Waldo? Like I like to say, literally, like, where’s Waldo? I mean, who am I, this guy, with these two teams, these two coaches?”

For Pastner, the deference is accentuated not only because, at 43 years old, he is the youngest coach in the ACC. Pastner has known the likes of Boeheim, Krzyzewski and Williams since he was in high school and all three already were entrenched as icons in the game. The story has been repeated, but when Pastner was in high school, he was the coach of his father Hal’s Houston-based AAU team. In that role, he came to know those three coaches and many others still now in the profession.

“I don’t take it for granted,” Pastner said of his job in the ACC. “You look around the room, there’s multiple Hall of Famers in the room. You pinch yourself, but you’re going to be a competitor and you want to win. But you also recognize the fragileness of the job. When I say fragileness, the preciousness of how precious these jobs are. You don’t’ take these things for granted.”

Pastner’s father even has a photo of his son with Krzyzewski when the two were at a Nike All-American camp in Indianapolis, Krzyzewski there to recruit and Pastner to coach. It is from around 1995, when Pastner would have been a few months shy of his 18th birthday and the legendary coach would have been going into his 16th season at Duke, 48 years old with two of his five national titles and seven of his 12 Final Four trips under his belt.

When Josh Pastner and Mike Krzyzewski took this picture at the Nike All-American camp in the mid-1990s, Pastner was a high-schooler coaching his father’s AAU team. (Courtesy Josh Pastner)
When Josh Pastner and Mike Krzyzewski took this picture at the Nike All-American camp in the mid-1990s, Pastner was a high-schooler coaching his father’s AAU team. (Courtesy Josh Pastner)

On Wednesday, Pastner was asked what that boy coach might have said had he been told that, in 26 years, he would be on the opposing bench against those giants in the ACC and beat all of them. His first response was to clarify that the wins aren’t his, but his players’.

With that being said, “I would probably say, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do it,’” Pastner told the AJC.

By that point in his life, Pastner knew he wanted a career in basketball, but realized that his path was coaching, not playing.

“That would be something where, if you’re going to compete and you’re a competitor, you want to win all those games, not just coach in them,” Pastner told the AJC. “I would hope I would say, ‘I hope I have the opportunity to do that.’ That’s all you can ask for in life, is have opportunities.”

As a competitor, more than the satisfaction of stopping Duke’s 14-game winning streak in the series, Pastner’s joy was grounded in the present. Beating Duke meant a significant win and another step closer to the NCAA tournament. The win gave the Jackets another “quad-2” win, improving Tech’s record in games against quad-1 and quad-2 competition (categories of games grouped by the opponent’s NET ranking and game site – home, road and neutral) to 8-6.

There are only 23 teams who have played at least 10 quad-1 and quad-2 games who have performed better. Heading into the regular-season finale at Wake Forest on Friday, Tech is in fairly exclusive company. In his projection posted early Wednesday, ESPN bracket analyst Joe Lunardi placed the Jackets as a No. 11 seed in the field of 68.

“I never take a win for granted,” Pastner said. “When I tell you I understand the preciousness and fragileness of the job, that’s why I say it takes a village to be able to win one game, and that village is your assistants and your players and the staff. It takes everybody involved. I’ve had great student-athletes and great staff members to help me be able to have some success.”

Virginia Tech’s Mike Young would seem the favorite to be ACC coach of the year, but the Jackets’ strong finish will merit Pastner some consideration. He already won it in 2017, his first season. At the least, it’s become a little easier to find Waldo.

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