‘Almost having a really good year’ means Duke’s NCAA tournament hopes are all but dead

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Steve Wiseman
·4 min read
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As the end nears, the story of Duke missing its first NCAA tournament since 1995 won’t be told describing a big massive failure in one particular area of play.

Instead, it will be moments, stretches of poor play here or a defensive breakdown there, that doomed Duke.

“It’s been a year of almost,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said following Tuesday night’s 81-77 overtime loss at Georgia Tech. “That’s about the fifth or sixth one-possession game that we’ve lost. You’re almost having a really good year. Instead, you’re having a .500 year. That’s the way the game is.”

The loss at Georgia Tech Tuesday night, the second crushing loss in a row after the Blue Devils (11-10, 9-8 ACC) had won four straight to position themselves back in the NCAA tournament discussion, included moments so striking even valiant efforts later couldn’t overcome them.

“Our margin between winning and losing is a narrow one,” Krzyzewski said. “You have a number of these plays and it’s tough to win.”

With perimeter shots not falling, Duke pivoted to an inside game, lobbing passes over the top of Georgia Tech’s zone to Mark Williams. The Blue Devils’ 7-0 freshman center produced 20 points and nine rebounds while playing against one of the ACC’s top big men, Yellow Jackets senior Moses Wright.

That was enough for Duke to lead for the first eight minutes of the second half.

Then, inexplicably, the Blue Devils lost their ability to run their offensive effectively. Duke turned the ball over six times in five minutes, allowing Georgia Tech to surge in front and build a 64-56 lead with 4:41 to play.

“For about five minutes in the second half,” Krzyzewski said, “....we just kind of went nuts. We were doing some things – what are we doing? That’s when they got the lead. What are we doing? We had no poise during that time.”

From Jordan Goldwire to Matthew Hurt

It started when Duke had the ball and a 52-50 lead and senior Jordan Goldwire, normally the steadiest of this year’s Blue Devils when it comes to protecting the ball, stumbled while dribbling and lost the ball.

It ended when Matthew Hurt, Duke’s most reliable scorer, picked up his fifth foul while jostling for position in the lane with 6:14 to play.

Georgia Tech had already taken the lead by then and the Yellow Jackets extended it to eight points.

A lineup thrown together on the fly — that included Goldwire, Williams, junior Joey Baker, sophomore Wendell Moore and freshman Jaemyn Brakefield — found a way to keep the Yellow Jackets scoreless over the final 4:40 of regulation while tying the score.

Brakefield even had an open 3-pointer in the final seconds that would have given Duke the win had it gone in.

It didn’t, of course, and Georgia Tech scored 17 points during the five minutes of overtime to leave Duke’s NCAA tournament hopes in a precarious place.

“We did have a chance,” Williams said. “Jaemyn almost hit that shot in regulation and in overtime, again we still had another chance to win, but it’s tough.”

Would a win over UNC be enough for Duke?

Beating North Carolina on Saturday night in the regular-season finale would obviously be great for the Blue Devils. But that wouldn’t be enough to align Duke for a tournament at-large bid.

No, the Blue Devils would need to win that one and at least three more in the ACC tournament, to approach that. It would probably take winning the ACC tournament and the league’s automatic bid to get Duke in at this point.

The Blue Devils’ NET rating, in the 40s last week, is now No. 57. They have one Quadrant 1 win, having squandered a chance to double that total by losing to Georgia Tech.

Losing 80-73 at home to Louisville on Saturday was another missed opportunity. Pile those losses on top of earlier four-point losses to UNC and Notre Dame, plus a 77-75 loss at Miami, and you see where Duke’s NCAA tournament hopes died.

Too much “almost” is bad for a tournament resume.

Just when Moore, who averages 9.9 points this season, looked fantastic in scoring 20 points against Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils starting backcourt of Steward and fellow freshman Jeremy Roach combined for 11 points and six turnovers on 3 of 11 shooting.

There again, Duke almost had a complete attack.

“You’ve got to hit shots,” Krzyzewski said. “Our guys on the perimeter have not done that lately. I’m not blaming them for the loss – they just didn’t. They’re good shots. If you hit them, we win.”

But they didn’t, which leaves Duke needing the biggest of weeks in Greensboro next week to keep its season going.

“Over the years, we’ve been very fortunate,” Krzyzewski said, “so I don’t know if the basketball gods are evening things up a little bit.”

Duke at UNC

When: 6 p.m., Saturday

Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill

Watch: ESPN