Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner doesn’t recall the circumstances exactly, but he was a high-school student when he posed for a picture with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. It was a Nike All-American camp in Indianapolis, perhaps 1995.
Pastner was not there as a participant. Rather, he was there as a coach; he coached his father Hal’s Houston-based AAU team as a high schooler, something of a boy genius on a path that led him to a spot on the Arizona coaching staff at 24 and a head-coaching job at Memphis at 31. Krzyzewski was there recruiting.
“I don’t remember how it happened, but someone probably took a picture of he and I, because there was no camera phones back then, and so I think someone said, ‘Let me get a picture of you two,’ and I said, ‘Hey, send it to me,’” Pastner, now 39, said Tuesday.
They likely won’t need to ask anyone for a photo Wednesday. Their two teams will meet in Durham, N.C., as ACC opponents in front of an ESPN2 audience. In an unlikely twist, the Yellow Jackets enter the game with the upper hand — Tech is 1-0 in the ACC after upsetting then-No. 9 North Carolina on Saturday. No. 8 Duke is 0-1 after its 89-75 loss to Virginia Tech the same day.
At the time of the photo, Pastner already was dreaming about becoming a college basketball coach. Two decades later, he’ll get his shot against the best the profession has to offer, his first meeting as a head coach with Duke and Krzyzewski. Pastner, 38, was deferential in comments about Krzyzewski, owner of five national championships, an NCAA-record 1,055 career wins and a spot in the basketball hall of fame.
“I’m not even in his dust,” Pastner said. “He’s in a whole other stratosphere than I am.”
The game has added meaning in that Krzyzewski will take an extended absence after the game because of back surgery that he will undergo on Friday.
“The guy’s one of the greatest ever to coach in the history of sport,” Pastner said. “He’s done so much for basketball, obviously with USA Basketball and Olympics and all that good stuff. So we want him to get healthy and get well.”
Pastner got help from Krzyzewski shortly after his hire at Tech in April. Pastner was speaking with Marquette coach and good friend Steve Wocjiechowski about potential assistant coaches, and the former Duke player and assistant suggested that he talk with Krzyzewski. Pastner and Krzyzewski spoke for about 30 or 40 minutes, Pastner recalled.
“There was a guy or two I wanted to ask him about, candidates that had some Duke ties, and I wanted to ask him on that and then we just started talking about some other stuff,” Pastner said.
On Wednesday, there will be far more going on Wednesday than the reconnection of a young coach and a giant in the profession. If Tech can somehow upset Duke, it would set the ACC on its ear. The Jackets were picked 14th in the ACC and the Blue Devils were the overwhelming preseason national No. 1. Since the start of the 1996-97 season — not long after Pastner and Krzyzewski took that snapshot in Indianapolis — Duke is 33-3 against the Jackets, a reign of torment that has now extended into its fourth coaching tenure at Tech.
But, the win over the Tar Heels has provided the Jackets with a new perspective on Wednesday’s matchup. Center Ben Lammers acknowledged being somewhat surprised that Tech beat North Carolina, particularly by 12 points. He said he was waiting for the Tar Heels to hit a couple of 3-pointers and get back in the game, but it never happened.
“It gives us a more positive outlook,” he said. “It’s like, you see, you really can beat anybody. We’re definitely going to go in there ready to attack.”
As will the Blue Devils, undoubtedly. They haven’t started ACC play 0-2 since 2006-07. Coincidentally, Duke’s first two ACC opponents that season were Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. The most recent instance before that was 1994-95 when, the Jackets also dropped the Blue Devils to 0-2. That season, Krzyzewski left the team before the Tech game with back pain after surgery and never returned. That’s the last time Duke failed to make the NCAA tournament. (Another coincidence: Krzyzewski’s replacement will be Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel, who was a candidate for the Tech job that went to Pastner. Capel was also on Duke’s 1994-95 team, and also subbed for Krzyzewski last season when he was ill for a game against, you guessed it, Tech.)
Tech is in the middle of an almost incomparable grind. After defeating the Tar Heels and coach Roy Williams on Saturday and taking on Duke on Wednesday, Pastner will lead his team Saturday against No. 9 Louisville and coach Rick Pitino at McCamish Pavilion. That’s three top-15 teams, each led by hall of fame coaches with a combined nine national championships, 27 Final Fours and 2,605 wins.
“I’ve been watching these guys for years, before I was in college as a high-school kid, and here I have the opportunity to coach against them,” Pastner said. “It’s a real honor and privilege, and I recognize that.”