Wiedmer: Duke game may not be moral victory for Jackets, but close

Wiedmer: Duke game may not be moral victory for Jackets, but close

January 8th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA -- Two minutes past noon Saturday, Georgia Tech basketball coach Brian Gregory looked to the other end of Philips Arena to see Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski giving his fifth-ranked Blue Devils their final pregame instructions.

"Just to coach at Georgia Tech and in the ACC is a thrill," said the first-year boss of the Yellow Jackets. "But to do it against a guy who's got 750 more wins than I do is a really big thrill."

To be completely accurate, Coach K now has 734 more wins than Gregory following the Blue Devils' narrow 81-74 win over the Jackets. That's also 913 for Krzyzewski's career, the most ever in Division I men's basketball.

But even if Gregory later insisted, "There are no moral victories in this program," this was something the Jackets could at least feel semi-good about, as opposed to the way they felt following Tuesday night's 73-48 loss to Alabama in this same Big Peach palace.

"That should never happen to us," said Glen Rice Jr., who led Tech with a career-high 28 points. "This game proves that."

Some might argue that what this game most proved is that Duke may be overrated, at least for now. After all, the Blue Devils lost at Temple on Wednesday, then blew almost all of an 18-point lead (32-14) earned in the opening half against Tech.

Duke has played the second toughest schedule to date nationally, and Coach K did start two true freshmen against the Jackets in guards Austin Rivers and Quinn Cook, which prompted Gregory to say of the Blue Devils: "They're pretty young."

Tech is merely pretty inexperienced in what it takes to be competitive game in and game out in a league such as the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"One of the biggest problems for us right now is when you rely solely on talent, you tend to be inconsistent," said Gregory, whose is 7-8 overall and 0-1 in the ACC heading into Wednesday night's game at North Carolina State.

"We've got some talented kids and we're going to keep bringing in talent, but they need to learn to that you have to play for the team first. Our guys don't always buy into that."

But the Alabama debacle may have changed that for Tech. Much as Gregory had preached all year that you'll ultimately play as you practice, Rice's first comment was, "We've been practicing hard. It translated to the game."

We tend to make sports more difficult than it is. Not 240 miles away in Knoxville, Tennessee's Volunteers did what Tech could not: They beat a top 15 team, crushing Florida 67-56.

Afterward -- and surely still recalling Wednesday's 18-point loss at Memphis -- Vols coach Cuonzo Martin sounded remarkably like Gregory when he said, "It was fun to watch our guys really compete and battle. I don't think there have been too many times like that this year that we've played like that from a passion standpoint, playing for each other and defending the way we did."

It isn't easy, competing and battling. If it was, Gregory might still be at Dayton and Martin at Missouri State because Tech and UT might not have seen a need to change, though former Vols coach Bruce Pearl's teams always competed hard and well until last year's NCAA woes seemed to zap their passion.

Now the issue for both Martin and Gregory is to motivate their teams to play this way every night, and not only when the opponents are biggest.

If the Vols can follow Saturday's win over the Gators with an inspired effort at Mississippi State on Thursday, "The Conz" could indeed be on the verge of happy days in Big Orange Country.

Likewise, if Tech battles as hard at State or next Sunday at Maryland as they did against Duke, the Jackets might at least reach the NIT, which Gregory won in 2010 at Dayton, beating the ACC's lordly North Carolina Tar Heels in the title game.

Possibly remembering that four straight missed free throws cost his team a chance to tie Duke late, Gregory said he'll know he's turning the corner at Tech "if my guys are in here Sunday shooting free throws on their own and looking at film. That's what championship teams do."

Or at least rebuilding teams such as UT and GT who want to become champions someday.