ATLANTA—There are really three words to sum up what this season has been for Duke men’s basketball: trial by fire.
Composing one of the youngest teams in the country, the Blue Devils succumbed to yet another veteran conference opponent Tuesday night, falling to Georgia Tech in overtime. Close losses have been nothing new for Duke this year, and while some of these close games have fallen in its favor, head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad heads to the locker room feeling disappointed more times than not.
This year has been a harsh reminder that the Blue Devils have been extremely fortunate in recruiting freshmen who are built for ACC basketball from Day 1. In some ways, this has been the first time you can look on the court and truly see Duke’s age.
Meanwhile, every Yellow Jacket who played more than five minutes Tuesday was a junior or senior, while a small crowd in McCamish Pavilion provided energy all night long to send out four important Georgia Tech seniors.
The Blue Devils’ record is an eye sore at this point of the season, though they have been within one possession of a win in the final minute of regulation in seven of their eight conference losses. Turning the ball over 10 times and giving up eight offensive rebounds in the second half like they did against the Yellow Jackets isn’t a recipe for winning in crunch time.
“We’re growing as a team, I guess,” freshman Mark Williams said. “Again, it’s tough to lose games like that, knowing you have a chance to win. I think the next step is to look at our next game Saturday. We can’t keep thinking about this game. We’ve got to stay positive, keep our heads up and focus on Carolina Saturday."
In the overtime period, Duke’s passion and energy showed, but sometimes it came at the expense of strong mental play. Williams gambled on an entry feed that led to a Moses Wright dunk and later picked up a loose ball foul 90 feet from Duke’s basket, resulting in two Georgia Tech free throws. Sophomore Wendell Moore Jr. went all out for a steal and fouled with 1:15 to play down four, with the Blue Devils just needing a stop and nothing heroic just yet.
Duke’s fight in these close games is promising enough for the youthful squad, and the only way these young players will grow is by making these late-game mistakes and learning from them.
“For about five minutes in the second half–[from] about 15 minutes [remaining] to 10 or somewhere in that–we just kind of went nuts,” Krzyzewski said. “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."
Duke’s late-game struggles also stem from a lack of a go-to guy. Sophomore Matthew Hurt has been about as consistent of an offensive threat as Krzyzewski could hope, but the sophomore is often in foul trouble late in games, and the team struggles to get the ball to its star in his spots when the opponent’s defensive intensity ramps up. The Blue Devils simply don’t have a ball-dominant player who can get the ball at halfcourt and go get his shot at any moment.
“You’re always better with a bunch of options, because if you only go to one, then they can key on him,” Krzyzewski said. “Matt has been kind of the go-to guy. We don’t have another go-to guy, although Wendell [Moore Jr.] tried to do that and has played his heart out and played well. But you have to score as a unit. We have good talent. We’re not that talented that you just give somebody the ball and they’re going to do something. You’ve got to score together and I thought we did at the end of regulation."
Luckily for the Blue Devils, they still had some veteran talent to keep them neck-and-neck with the Yellow Jackets. Freshman guards DJ Steward and Jeremy Roach watched from the sidelines as senior Jordan Goldwire opened what would be an 8-0 run to force overtime with a fall away jumper. Six quick points from junior Joey Baker tied the game, and Duke even had a great look to win the game in regulation with Goldwire taking the inbound pass the length of the court and finding Jaemyn Brakefield on a cross-court feed.
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Before it’s even asked, the answer is you try to win the game in front of you to the best of your abilities. But it should be asked what is more beneficial to the Duke program right now: trying to scrap together wins with your veterans or putting the young freshman backcourt through these late-game situations to develop them for the future?
“I’m very disappointed about tonight, but they will keep fighting and we’ve got to do that again on Saturday,” Krzyzewski said. “Every time we line up, that’s what we have to do. Our guys have done that. Over the years, we’ve been very fortunate, so I don’t know if the basketball gods are evening things up a little bit. We respect Georgia Tech and we’re not going to make any excuses."
But perhaps there’s light at the end of the tunnel. With the exception of Hurt and Goldwire, the majority of this year’s rotation is expected back in Durham next fall to try and reestablish the norm of Duke basketball. Each game is a lesson learned for a team still developing every day. Who knows, maybe in the future, something special is forged from this fire.
“Now we’re having difficult, and we have to accept that and see what it does for us at this time,” Krzyzewski said. “Our program has been on a continuum for the entire time the last 37 years for us. Where does this lead to? Not just where does this lead to on Saturday or next week, but where does it lead to? What do we get from this, from putting it out there all the time. Something good happens with that.”