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So What Did We See In Syracuse?

We saw a young team flirting with its considerable potential Saturday

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Syracuse
 Feb 18, 2023; Syracuse, New York, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Tyrese Proctor (5) shoots the ball against Syracuse Orange center Jesse Edwards (14) during the second half at the JMA Wireless Dome.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

What we saw Saturday in Duke’s imposing win over Syracuse was something we probably won't see again any time soon: a young head coach who has brought a very young team along, in spite of injuries and inconsistency, to where it is now a formidable opponent for just about anyone.

We are seeing coach and team both grow into their potential at the same time. How wonderful is that?

This group of oh-so-young Devils has played young for most of the season. On Saturday, they did not play young.

They played with confidence, if not swagger. They neutralized the home crowd. They hit perimeter shots to neutralize Jim Boeheim’s famous 2-3 zone. And they defended very well, neutralizing the Orange offense.

Now, instead of a tentative young center that many thought was overrated, we see Derrick Lively beginning to dominate inside. He’s become an intimidating presence, able to block shots and also to alter others. He’s improved dramatically - and quickly.

So has Tyrese Proctor, who Dickie V himself reminded us Saturday should still be in high school. He is now playing with a very positive arrogance, which is not the same thing as a negative arrogance, which nobody wants.

Jeremy Roach seems to be past his toe injury, and for some time now. His presence is really critical for this young team.

But perhaps the biggest change is that Dariq Whitehead, who has been back from his second injury for three games now, is getting ruthlessly hungry for three point shots. Since returning, he has hit 11-16 which works out to a ludicrous 68.7 percent.

He’s very confident and you can see his teammates are confident in him too. And he doesn’t have to hit 68.7 percent to still be highly effective.

He’s shooting well enough now that you simply can’t ignore him. And if you put one of your better defenders on him, the rest of the defense is likely to be a bit squishier too.

Mark Mitchell also seems to be playing with confidence. He’s been a willing defender all season but not always aggressive on offense. When he is, things change for Duke.

In short, this team played with a lot of maturity and strength, which was great to see. And while part of that is down to them simply having gone through some hard knocks and maturing, some of it is down to Jon Scheyer and his staff.

People constantly compare Scheyer to his illustrious predecessor, Mike Krzyzewski, and find Scheyer somehow lacking. Even if you count the game where he filled in for Coach K, well duh: he’s coached less than 25 games. He’s just starting out. Coach K wasn’t Coach K after a handful of games either.

But we have some things now we can say about Scheyer too. First, he’s a terrific defensive coach. And second, we see one area where he may ultimately may prove to be better than Krzyzewski,and indeed, arguably already is.

That area?

Ball movement.

At times during the long K Era, we did see some beautiful ball movement, but you got the feeling that it was magic that came to visit, not that it was a major emphasis like, say, defense, communication, and drawing fouls were. We’re not ripping Coach K’s offense or anything, but ball movement wasn’t a consistent strength.

For Scheyer, it appears to be not just a clear strength but that it could possibly something very special.

Duke has had some brilliant stretches of ball movement this year that are, and this is no exaggeration, breath taking.

Literally, it makes you gasp and want to ask someone, anyone: did you see what just happened?

Unfortunately, early on much of that ended up with missed shots. However, with a healthy Whitehead who is shooting brilliantly, the ball movement has a logical terminus or, at a minimum, someone that stresses the defenders and forces them out further than they really want to go.

Toss in a guy who can shut down the inside and a point guard whose confidence is surging, and Duke is becoming a team no one wants to see.

That doesn’t mean that they’re going to win everything and dominate every opponent. Most likely they won't and we’ll still see some freshman stretches, like we saw with the nine-turnover first half at Syracuse (one measure of how well Duke played was that the Blue Devils had those horrible turnovers and still built a 19-point lead).

But what we do see first is how well Scheyer has brought this team along and second, how the pieces are starting to fit together.

His team still has a ways to go to reach its potential, but look at the Top 25. Duke has played six of those teams. State thrashed the Devils and so did Miami, but Duke beat Miami too and was denied a chance to register a win over Virginia because of a thoroughly botched call at the end of regulation.

Duke has also played Kansas and Purdue, losing both games early and without Whitehead and Lively.

Look again: how many of these teams do you think would have beaten Duke in January? How many are you certain would do so now?

Very few people could simultaneously deal with the pressure that following Krzyzewski brings and also improve his team despite three rather significant injuries (to Whitehead, Lively and Roach).

If anybody tells you Scheyer’s not doing a good job, you tell them, no he’s not.

He’s doing a great job. And he’s barely 35. The future is very bright.