Tech is close to the Big Dance. Up next: Duke

Credit: ACC

Caption
Tech (13-8, 9-6 ACC) won its fourth consecutive game - 84-77 win over the Orange - to further make its case for the NCAA tournament

Credit: ACC

We live in interesting times. Georgia Tech, which has struggled for a decade just to reach the figurative bubble, is about to face an opponent that hasn’t had to fret about its NCAA Tournament fate since Mike Krzyzewski took his health-related furlough in 1995. Over the past 24 NCAAs — no Big Dance last year, you’ll recall — Duke has been seeded no lower than eighth. Only twice has it been seeded below fourth. And yet …

The Blue Devils will arrive at McCamish Pavilion on Tuesday looking up, believe it or not, at Tech. The Yellow Jackets are 40th in the NCAA’s NET rankings; Duke is 59th. As of Monday noon, Duke wasn’t included in any of the manifestations of bracketology to which I pay heed — Joe Lunardi’s on ESPN, Jerry Palm’s on CBS Sports or Shelby Mast’s bracketwag.com. If not for a hairbreadth victory over Virginia on Feb. 20, the Devils wouldn’t even be bubbling.

As for Tech: Palm and Mast have the Jackets among their last four in; Lunardi has Tech (and Duke) among his “next four out.” Beating Duke would make it hard for the Jackets to miss the NCAA Tournament. They’ll conclude their regular season against Wake Forest, which has lost its past four by an aggregate 101 points. Two wins this week would leave Tech at 11-6 in ACC play. That would more than suffice.

Back to Duke: The Devils are 11-9. Only twice this century has Duke finished with 10-plus losses, most recently in 2007. We’re all in agreement that this is the nation’s flagship program and that Krzyzewski is no worse than the second-best coach in the history of the college game. We have, however, seen that even Coach K is subject to the vagaries of his sport, in which the best players tend to spend no more than seven months on campus. A Duke freshman has been drafted among the NBA’s top 10 in every year save one from 2011 through 2019; Duke made the Final Four in only one of those seasons.

We stipulate that nobody game-planned for a pandemic, but it’s noteworthy that the most ardent collectors of one-and-dones are having tepid-or-worse seasons. Kentucky is 8-14, having lost to Tech and Georgia. The Wildcats have finished below .500 once since 1927. Not one player who worked in the 17-point loss to the Jackets on Dec. 6 had played for Kentucky before November. Duke starts two sophomores and a senior, but the highest-ranked member of its third-ranked-in-the-nation freshman class — Jalen Johnson — announced Feb. 15 he was leaving to prepare for the NBA Draft. Say hello to half-and-done.

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Georgia Tech's forward Moses Wright (left) embraces head coach Josh Pastner before their game against Syracuse Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech's forward Moses Wright (left) embraces head coach Josh Pastner before their game against Syracuse Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia Tech's forward Moses Wright (left) embraces head coach Josh Pastner before their game against Syracuse Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Josh Pastner has said — no fewer than a hundred million times — that his blueprint for Tech success was to get old and stay old. Tech starts four seniors and a junior. Of the ACC’s three best players, two are Tech seniors. (Meaning Moses Wright and Jose Alvarado.) According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, Tech is the nation’s fourth-most-experienced team.

If the Jackets win twice this week, there’s a real chance they’ll finish among the league’s top four, which would earn them a double bye in the conference tournament. A season that began as badly as possible — home losses to Georgia State and Mercer around Thanksgiving — has been made to go right. Tech owns victories over Florida State, North Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech, all of which should make the NCAA field. The Jackets haven’t lost to a sub-.500 ACC team. Beating Duke would all but put them in the Dance, and it would come close to knocking the Devils out. (Duke plays Carolina in Chapel Hill on Saturday.)

For the first time in more than a decade, Tech has more good players than Duke. Tech has enough good players not just to make the NCAA Tournament but to stick around awhile, but it has to get there first. As we speak, the Jackets are very, very close. They haven’t qualified for the only tournament that matters since 2010, which was two coaches ago. It has taken Pastner five years, but he at last has a team of NCAA-quality.

Oh, and there’s this: It’s possible — not probable, but possible — that this senior-laden team could return intact next season. Owing to COVID, the NCAA has granted every athlete involved in a winter sport another year of eligibility, seniors included. None of these Jackets is projected to go in NBAdraft.net’s latest mock. (Not even Wright, not even in Round 2.) This doesn’t mean Wright and Alvarado and Jordan Usher and Bubba Parham will all choose to return to school, which would involve going to class for yet another year when they’d surely prefer to be playing for pay, but imagine if they did.

That wouldn’t be getting old. That would be getting ancient.

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