It is the glamour match-up. It’s the four-letter word that stands out each year on the Georgia Tech basketball schedule: D-U-K-E.
The Yellow Jackets enter Tuesday’s game at Cameron Indoor Stadium playing a bit part in a national college basketball storyline: The No. 16 Blue Devils (11-3, 0-1) come in raw from an ACC-opening loss at Notre Dame, their first this season to an unranked team. They just dropped out of the Associated Press Top 10 for the first time in six years and freshman sensation Jabari Parker — shocker! — just played like a freshman in his worst game thus far.
That’s all well and good. But Georgia Tech (9-5, 0-1) has its own issues and those don’t stop because of who’s next on the schedule.
Tech’s fourth straight road game is the Jackets’ second of the young ACC season as well as their second without Robert Carter Jr. The talented sophomore power forward is scheduled to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Tuesday afternoon.
While Carter Jr. finds out more about whether his meniscus tear will cost him the rest of the season, Tech will continue its evolution without him. The team didn’t fare well in the first try against Maryland, a 77-61 loss.
“We just have to play our game and put behind us how we played at Maryland,” said senior center Daniel Miller, who was limited to seven points and four rebounds in the loss Saturday. “That was a terrible game for us.”
Miller is a pretty good place to start as the team tries to find itself. He averages 10.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, leading Tech in scoring three times. And Duke doesn’t have a true center to match up against him. Notre Dame provided a pretty good blueprint Saturday for how to beat Duke by dumping the ball down low.
Also this: He loves playing in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“It’s just a good time,” said Miller, without flinching. “It’s the best place to me. For me, it’s the most fun I have. I think it’s a good opportunity for us.”
Georgia Tech has lost its past five games against Duke and its last six at Cameron. Miller had nine points and nine rebounds in Tech’s 73-57 loss at Duke last Jan. 17.
Tech senior guard Trae Golden spent the past three seasons at Tennessee. The only time he’s played in Cameron Indoor was as a high schooler at one of Bob Gibbons’ camps.
“It doesn’t look like anything spectacular,” Golden said of the building. “But it’s not necessarily how it looks but what it brings. So that’s something you’ve just got to be ready for and I’m just excited for the challenge.”
That’s the sort of language Gregory needs to hear from his seniors whom he’s counting on to help Tech re-invent itself.
This is the first time in Gregory’s three seasons when his team has faced the kind of unexpected road block that can divert the trajectory — “the process” as he has calls it — that he envisioned when he arrived. First, freshman point guard Travis Jorgenson, who was showing the promise of becoming a significant contributor, was lost to a season-ending knee tear. Now Carter’s out indefinitely.
“We’re not the only school, the only program that’s going through that,” Gregory said. “That’s where you count on your seniors, which we have three or four of them now playing significant minutes. You’ve got to count on those guys to not only lead the way but also themselves to fight their way (through). And I’ve got all the confidence in the world that they will.”
Jason Morris is at the top of that list. Only four games back from foot surgery, the senior wing is being asked to play everything from the No. 2 guard spot as well as the 3 and then to the power forward spot in place of Carter. He and freshman Quinton Stephens will both play the “stretch 4” role when the Yellow Jackets go to the 4-out 1-in sets they’ll have to use a lot more.
Part of the challenge for both Morris and Stephens will be guarding Parker, one of the most dynamic players in college this season and likely a top pick in the NBA draft come June. He’s 6 foot 8 and playing the power forward spot out of necessity for Duke, but he has the moves and shooting touch of a guard. He’s averaging 20.4 points per game.
Gregory knows it well. He saw a lot of Parker as a freshman at Simeon Academy when he was recruiting his teammate, Brandon Spearman, as the head coach at Dayton.
Parker was limited to seven points on 2-for-10 shooting against Notre Dame, the first time he was held below double-digits this season.
“That was a typical freshman game,” Gregory said. “His first true road game of the year and those things happen. He’s human, but he’s pretty darn good.”