Last spring, we came across an amazing photograph of Jon Scheyer, Chris Carrawell, Amile Jefferson and Nolan Smith on a recruiting flight. and all we could think of was how much it reminded us of the very early Beatles. They were young and on the rise, clearly happy and excited. The world had opened wide for them all.
Of course, in the spring nothing challenging had happened yet, or at least nothing other than the transition from Mike Krzyzewski to Scheyer which was under way but was being handled brilliantly all around.
There will be some challenges for Scheyer and company this season, and how he handles them will define the season and possibly beyond.
Replacing a legend is hard for the new coach and the program.
At UCLA, John Wooden was replaced by Gene Bartow who won 80 percent of his games and left after two years.
He was replaced by former Wooden player and assistant Gary Cunningham who won 85 percent of his games. Lasted two years.
Larry Brown? Surprise! two years, one national championship game, vacated naturally since it’s Larry Brown (three schools, three probations), and off to Kansas for his middle probation (SMU finished the trifecta).
And on it went - Larry Farmer, Walt Hazzard, Jim Harrick, Steve Lavin, Ben Howland, Steve Alford, interim Murray Bartow and now Mick Cronin. It sounds cooler if you stick to first names: Gene, Gary, Larry, Larry, Walt, Jim, Steve, Ben, Steve, Murray, Mick.
UCLA had three coaches before Wooden came in 1948; it’s had 11 since he retired in 1975.
UNC’s Dean Smith retired in 1997. Career assistant Bill Guthridge took over as essentially a caretaker for three years and the program, no longer dynamic or innovative, began to decline.
Smith’s determination to keep the job in the UNC family after Gut retired led him to push for Matt Doherty, which was an enormous miscalculation: Doherty nearly wrecked the program. Doherty’s successor and old boss Roy Williams had a brilliant run but he is a great exception and not just at UNC.
Now it’s Hubert Davis, another family hire, and while he got his team to the championship game last year, that’s just one season and much of the season prior to that was frustrating for everyone in the Tar Heel camp.
Since Adolph Rupp retired at Kentucky in 1972, UK has gone through Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith, Billy Gillispie and now John Calipari. Four of them won national championships; none, except for arguably Pitino, escaped Rupp’s shadow, and he left after eight seasons. There is no job like Kentucky for pressure and expectations.
Indiana and Bob Knight parted on epically bad terms and though Mike Davis had a great season about 20 years ago, getting to the championship game, IU is only now showing signs of possibly sustainable hope with Mike Woodson. And like Hubert Davis, it’s still early with him.
Georgetown after John Thompson? They turned to his version of Guthridge, assistant Craig Esherick, then his son, and now former Hoya star Patrick Ewing, who had a dreadful season last year.
All of this goes to show that following a legend is not for the faint hearted and fans need to understand that things will not be the same after a legend retires. How could it be?
The good news is that Coach K, we’re quite sure, studied the history of people like himself and what happened after they stepped down. The transition at Duke was meticulously planned to give Scheyer the best possible chance to succeed. Krzyzewski was there to help with recruiting when players visited (he didn’t travel or do home visits). He no doubt sat countless hours with Scheyer and told him many things that only Coach K, with his decades of experience, would know.
But now it’s on Scheyer. He seems upbeat and relaxed, but it won’t be easy. That doesn’t mean he can’t succeed. But it won’t be easy.
On the plus side, he’s clearly capable. Just 34, he’s built a reputation as a fine basketball mind and he has recruited brilliantly. He has the respect of his players and AD Nina King.
So what do we know about how things will change?
A few things so far.
In an interview earlier this year, Scheyer talked about Coach K’s intense video sessions and hinted that he wasn’t a big fan of that approach.
In a column by Myron Medcalfe, he also suggests he’s going to try to have more of a work-life balance. Coach K is famously devoted to his family. No one questions that. But his daughters also called him Mole Man because he would totally immerse himself in video reviews. Scheyer has a young family and clearly wants to spend time with them. They’re probably not going to call him Mole Man.
We also know that he made some very smart hires.
Mike Schrage, who worked with Johnny Dawkins at Stanford and then ran his own show at Elon, returns to Duke as a special assistant. He knows Duke, knows Scheyer and knows head coaching, which is a smart asset for a young head coach. You can’t simulate experience. Lots of young coaches are doing this, notably Juwan Howard at Michigan, who hired Phil Martelli.
Amile Jefferson was promoted. He stood out at Duke for his willingness to do whatever his team needed to succeed and would be an asset anywhere. He should be great.
In an audacious move, Scheyer plucked ace recruiter Jai Lucas off of John Calipari’s Kentucky staff. The son of Durham native and Maryland legend John Lucas, and the grandson of a prominent Durham educator, getting Lucas was a big deal in several ways.
First of course, he came from Kentucky, and there’s no doubt that Calipari could have paid him more if money would have kept him in Lexington. Duke is arguably a better program than Kentucky today, but Kentucky is still Kentucky. It says a lot that he would leave Lexington for Durham.
Second, he didn’t play for Duke, which is a significant departure from recent tradition because Coach K has only hired former Duke captains for years now.
And third, he and Scheyer are likely the two best recruiters in college basketball.
Lucas said recently that Scheyer and Durham were major draws for him: “[Coach Scheyer] was the biggest influence just because of what I think he’ll be able to do here. Where I see college basketball going, I see him as one of those new coaching pioneers with this new wave of what college [basketball] is going to be…The second part was just Durham and my ties and my family being here.”
In a way, that echoes Smith, who was very happy at Duke, but when Louisville called him home, he couldn’t say no.
Finally, Chris Carrawell was already on staff and has been promoted to Associate Head Coach. If you’ve read here for long you know how we feel about Carrawell. He’s a joyous spirit who just makes things better. As one example, we point to his reaction when Scheyer told him he got the job: He told the Fayetteville Observer’s David Thompson that “[w]hen he was like, ‘I’m going to be named,’ I ran around my front yard. I just took off because I was so excited.”
How cool is that? That’s a guy you treasure having by your side and on your side. He’s also great because he speaks his mind freely. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, he was not in the media that much in the final Krzyzewski years. Will he be more visible now? We hope so. He’s always a breath of fresh air.
We should also mention that Scheyer’s staff is young - Carrawell is the oldest at 44 and he’s hardly creaky - and they’re all huge assets in recruiting. Scheyer has already been sensational of course and Lucas was brilliant for Calipari. Jefferson has sterling character and a national championship ring and, we suspect, is a good teacher. And Carrawell’s personality and his own life experience, make him a formidable presence both in the gym and as a recruiter.
And then there’s Rachel Baker.
Scheyer created a General Manager position specifically for Baker. She’ll do many things but one of her key roles is to coordinate NIL opportunities for the team. She comes to Duke with experience with Nike, the NBA and the broader business world. It’s an innovative hire and also speaks to what Lucas said about Scheyer.
The staff, to sum it up, looks great. But things will obviously be different.
Moving along, we have immense respect for Krzyzewksi and his eternal vigilance about standards.
Think back: when was the last game you felt Duke didn’t really compete at a high level? Not winning or losing, but shooting for excellence? It’s really extraordinary to maintain such a high standard for that long. Coach K had many tools at his disposal. He is a superb communicator. He managed his time as well as anyone in his position could. He adapted amazingly well as the ground kept shifting under his feet but the fundamental standards for the program never changed.
He has another asset which isn’t as well understood.
One of the things that K shares with Knight, and thankfully learned to control, is a fearsome temper. Knight was just always ready to erupt. Throw a chair, dump a cop in a trash can, kick his own son, put his hands on a kid’s throat - you name it, Knight may have done it.
K is famously volatile too, but he learned to harness his anger and to use it as a tool. Young K was much more aggressive with reporters; older K just moved on. Not too long ago, former Duke player Jay Bilas said something on air at ESPN that irked Krzyzewski and he briefly shunned Bilas. But they sat down and discussed it and moved on, something Knight, now a bitter old man, has never been able to do.
We don’t think Scheyer will emulate that. No doubt he has a temper. We all do. But he seems like a more even-keeled sort of a guy.
Speaking of Bilas, we’re curious about how the program will deal with media. Some local writers felt ignored in recent years. Will Scheyer address that? He’d be wise to do so. If at some point - well, really when, not if - he hits a rough patch, good media relations will be a salve.
And obviously we don’t know and probably won’t know much about the behind-the-scenes stuff. Is he a good manager? Does he have good day-to-day skills with his non-basketball staff? Is his office a happy office?
We don’t have major concerns here but these are things that matter. Brad Stevens wanted everyone, even the janitors, to think in championship terms. We know Scheyer does, but there are so many responsibilities beyond just recruiting, practice and games. It’s huge job. It could be overwhelming for anyone.
Practice already seems different with a lighter touch, as Medcalfe noted. K’s practices were highly efficient. Will Scheyer’s be? How is the teaching going? How are the assistants settling into their new roles?
Again, this is stuff we won’t see but that really matters.
This also matters: assistant coaches are often the good cop to the head coach’s bad cop. DJ Steward talked about Scheyer beating him in NBA 2K. In the HBO series Band of Brothers, a low-level officer was put in charge of some soldiers and was quickly told that he can’t win at poker anymore. He was in a different position now and he could no longer be one of the guys.
Not that Scheyer necessarily was one of the guys, but things have changed and how he deals with his players will change. He can’t be the good cop anymore. How will he handle that? It’s a potential problem for anyone in his position and will have to be intelligently managed.
It is a bit different for Scheyer than it was for, say, UNC’s Davis who inherited a lot of returning talent, because Scheyer only has two scholarship players back from last season. It’s essentially a whole new team. They didn’t really know him in his previous role, at least not as team members, so they won’t have to adjust to his new one. Oddly, that could be an advantage. Historically, a lot of coaches have had to wait 2-3 years to get a team that’s mostly made up of their players.
And then the obvious thing we will all look for: how will Duke’s style change?
Krzyzewski’s greatest strengths were communication and motivation and the primary characteristic of his teams were that they fought. At one point, when talking about K and Izzo, we said that while Izzo might have been a great general, K was more like special forces. What we were getting at is that he his teams sensed that they were elite and could aspire to do anything.
And the esprit d’corps Krzyzewski instilled was amazing. The Brotherhood? They know what they experienced at Duke was something special.
It’s obvious that one of Scheyer’s strengths is recruiting and he’s built a staff to amplify that. And we know he’s highly regarded for his basketball intellect.
He was a brilliant player. He wasn’t hugely athletic but he outsmarted and outworked opponents and rarely made mistakes. In that, he’s similar to Steve Kerr, who, despite being small and slow, carved out a substantial NBA career before moving on to coach the Golden State Warriors.
His coaching is likely, to some extent, to reflect his playing style: cerebral and competitive.
Carrawell addressed Scheyer’s competitiveness, saying don’t let the baby face fool you. Scheyer is intensely competitive.
He’s already made it clear that he is going to emphasize defense while offensively, he’s looking for good shooters and versatility.
With a projected starting lineup of Dereck Lively, Kyle Filipowski, Jacob Grandison, Tyrese Proctor and Jeremy Roach, and Dariq Whitehead likely to move in when his foot allows, Duke has five shooters to space the court. When Jaden Schutt, Mark Mitchell and Kale Catchings come in, that won’t fall off much and Ryan Young will be a tremendous backup for Lively and Filipowski.
We don’t know if we’ll see Duke run something similar to Mike Brey’s occasionally devastating Notre Dame offense - Brey is a superb offensive mind - but we might.
No one is going to match Krzyzewski’s motivational skills and his ability to cut through BS and get down to naked truths, but it’s entirely possible that Scheyer’s X’s and O’s could compensate. Plus - and we’re spitballing here - our bet is that he’s much better at the analytics and other goodies that tech can offer than Coach K was. He should be. Technology slowly seeped in to basketball during Coach K’s long run, but he spent about half of his life without it being a huge factor. Scheyer grew up with computers, networks and he’s young enough to be totally comfortable with analytics. He likely understands that stuff in a way that Coach K, like many of his generation, cannot. They appreciate it, they get it, but no one handed them an iPhone when they were bored at the pediatrician’s office. Scheyer grew up with the Internet a fact of life. It’s just different.
Another thing we don’t know is who is going to be the bad cop when things aren’t going well. Is it going to be Scheyer? On some level it has to be, but it may not be his strong point and that’s really critical. Any team, athletically or otherwise, has to be managed and directed. In a perfect world, the people on the team manage and direct themselves. They hold themselves to high standards and keep everyone accountable. But that doesn’t always happen and someone has to make occasionally unpleasant decisions.
What would Scheyer do with Rasheed Sulaimon? What about Chris Burgess’s dad?
We all got so used to Coach K that we could fill in the blanks at times. Being exposed to someone who is a genius at what he does makes it look effortless, but of course it wasn’t. It’s just that he was so good at it - all of it - that he made it look easy. But it’s not.
From a fan’s point of view, we need to be patient with Scheyer and give him room to grow. We’ve talked a lot here about how he isn’t Mike Krzyzewski and shouldn’t try to be.
We shouldn’t expect him to be either. But what should we expect? What can we do?
At Duke, basketball is life, it’s Carnival. It’s a joyous gathering. As Tom Wolfe said when he attended games in Cameron, the crowd is a colonial animal, and Cameron, aka Basketball Paradise, is a beautiful thing.
And it can help the coach, as it always has. The transition has gone beautifully so far, but competition hasn’t started. If things aren’t going well, we can help them go better. It’s really important that fans be supportive in general but specifically if things get bumpy. Duke is not Kentucky, UCLA or UNC. The fans have always been a special part of Duke Basketball partly because they don’t behave like fans of other elite programs when things go poorly.
In general, though, we are optimistic. True, Scheyer is young and untested. However, he has the tools to excel and we think he will.