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Now We Learn If Jon Scheyer Has “It”

How Duke responds to Saturday’s heartbreak will say a lot about its young coach

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Virginia
Duke Blue Devils head coach Jon Scheyer gestures from the bench against the Virginia Cavaliers in the first half at John Paul Jones Arena.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday, Jon Scheyer coached a winning game. Against a Top 10 team on the road, faced with foul trouble to his captain and zero points from his leading scorer, Scheyer had the Blue Devils in a position to win with a second left in regulation. He drew up a winning play that should’ve netted free throws, only to have that opportunity negated by referees that “incorrectly adjudicated” the end of the game.

But now, that’s in the past. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”

Now, Scheyer is faced with a more challenging task than drawing up that fateful out of bounds play: getting a heartbroken team ready for the stretch run. This result could all too easily hijack a team’s progress, especially one as young as this year’s Duke squad. Whether Scheyer can shift his team’s mindset and finish the season strong will say a lot about whether he has the nebulous “it” factor that all fans want from their coach.

Scheyer has a foundation to build upon. Rightfully overshadowed by an officiating error that determined the outcome of the game were some very encouraging signs from the Blue Devils. Tyrese Proctor rebounded from a horrid performance against Miami, scoring 14 points on 50% shooting from the field, while keeping Duke in the game while Jeremy Roach dealt with foul trouble. When Roach was on the court he was excellent, leading the team with 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting. Meanwhile, Duke’s bench reemerged, buoyed by 11 points from Jacob Grandison and 10 from a returning Dariq Whitehead.

This team, healthier than it has been all year, should have beaten the AP #8 team in the country. Had Kyle Filipowski played anything but the worst game of his career, or Derrick Lively not had his ability to impact the game hindered by two early fouls, maybe the contest would not have hinged on that final decision by the officials. That’s the message (alongside a continued emphasis on not turning the ball over, of course) that Scheyer has two days to drill into his team before its next contest against Notre Dame.

That task will be made easier by Duke’s upcoming schedule. Having finished the “gauntlet” portion of the season afloat, but by no means triumphant (5-4 over the past nine games, all of which were against the top half of the ACC and/or on the road), the Blue Devils now face a home contest against a struggling Fighting Irish team, a winnable road game against an average Syracuse squad, and then another home contest against a bottom-feeding Louisville squad. Scheyer can use those three games to establish the identify of his now healthy team before a final stretch that includes two home contests against challenging opponents (Virginia Tech and NC State) followed by the season ending visit to Chapel Hill.

But it is by no means a given that these young Blue Devils will be able to put yesterday’s result in the rearview mirror. Doing so will require great mental fortitude, complimented by motivation and direction from Scheyer. If Duke’s first year head coach can manage that, his team has shown it can be competitive against the toughest competition and facing adversity, which would make it a squad no one will want to see in a bracket in March.

Accomplishing that is much easier said than done, though. It requires a coach that knows the pulse of his team, knows the right buttons to push, and knows the motivational tactics to employ. It requires a coach with “it.” Whether Scheyer has found it less than a season into his career will become clear in the coming week.