You can’t tell the story of Jon Scheyer’s first Duke team starting at the end, even if that end has left a bitter taste in the mouths of all Blue Devil fans this morning.
Let’s start, instead, on January 4.
Duke had been humiliated in Raleigh by 24 points, and was just 2-2 in ACC play. Even I, someone who is oft-accused of wearing Duke blue-tinted glasses, couldn’t find a silver lining in the performance. The Blue Devils looked and played young, and the most reactionary of Duke fans started grumbling about Scheyer’s coaching performance.
Fast forward to January 23.
Duke lost a heartbreaker on the road to Virginia Tech, another venue that has historically been a house of horrors for the program. The Blue Devils were just 5-4 in ACC play, and 1-3 on the road. Fans were beginning to worry whether this squad would ever be mentally tough enough to win on the road, let alone make the NCAA Tournament.
Fast forward once more to February 11.
A chance for a season-defining victory at Virginia had been taken away by “incorrect adjudication” by the referees, mere days after the Blue Devils had been blown out at Miami. All momentum the team had earned by beating rival North Carolina at home was seemingly spent. I posited that how the Blue Devils responded to yet another moment of sever adversity would dictate whether Jon Scheyer had “it,” the unquantifiable factor that differentiates great coaches from good ones.
At any of those three moments, or a handful of others driven by a relentless injury bug, a historically young Duke team with a historically young first-year coach could have folded. They could’ve limped through the rest of the regular season and perhaps snuck into the NCAA Tournament as an afterthought. This season might’ve been written off as an outlier, with the eyes of Duke fans focused on the long term.
But that’s not what happened.
Instead, led by Scheyer and junior captain Jeremy Roach, the young Blue Devils responded to adversity. They finished the regular season without another loss, including an impressive victory in Chapel Hill that played no small part in the rival Tar Heels missing the NCAA Tournament altogether. They won the ACC Tournament, avenging the Miami and Virginia losses along the way. They put together one of the more impressive performances of the NCAA’s first round, annihilating an Oral Roberts team that was a trendy upset pick.
I can’t think of many Duke fans who would’ve predicted any of that on January 4, or January 23, or February 11.
Yes, the Blue Devils were outclassed by an older, more physical Tennessee team in the second round of the tournament. Yes, Duke partisans may gripe about the officiating that allowed that physical play for a few days. Yes, Mark Mitchell’s absence will leave Duke fans wondering “what if” for years to come.
But none of that negates the journey that preceded this disappointment.
A team that some of the most ardent Duke fans wrote off will raise an ACC Championship banner in Scheyer’s first season. We were treated to special moments from Roach, the evolution of Dereck Lively from potential bust to game-breaking defensive presence, and a masterclass from Scheyer molding a young team into a cohesive unit. And after this turn around, there’s every reason to believe the program’s trajectory is headed up from here.
Yes, there will be the usual turnover: Lively and Dariq Whitehead are almost surely gone to be first round NBA picks, while it has been whispered that this would be Roach’s last season in Durham for some time. Any, or all, of Kyle Filipowski, Tyrese Proctor, and Mark Mitchell could also decide to start their pro careers now. But even in a worst case scenario where Duke’s top six players leave (and, unlike in recent years, the combination of NIL and the unsettled draft stock of Filipowski, Proctor and Mitchell make it more likely that some key cogs will return), Scheyer was sure to lay the foundation of continuity into next year.
Barring an unexpected transfer, Duke will return four scholarship players next season: sixth-year center Ryan Young, sophomore center Christian Reeves, junior point guard Jaylen Blakes, and sophomore sharpshooter Jaden Schutt. Yes, none of those four were major contributors down the stretch this season, but they all have potential in their own rights to make an impact next season. Young started nine games this season and averaged 6 points and 5 rebounds in 18 mpg. Before a broken nose, Blakes had carved out his own niche role as a defensive stopper off the bench, and scored 17 points in back-to-back ACC games in December. Meanwhile, Schutt is just a year removed from being a consensus Top 50 recruit, while the staff was pleased enough with Reeves’ development that they abandoned plans to redshirt him this season. There’s no Jeremy Roach in that group of returnees to be sure, but that’s a core on which Scheyer can begin to foster more year-to-year continuity in his program, especially if any or all of them take a major step forward in their development this offseason. If those four are complemented by one or two returnees from Duke’s top six, alongside the nation’s number two recruiting class, the Blue Devils will likely begin the 2023-24 season among the pre-season favorites for a Final Four.
A decade from now, if Scheyer achieves his potential and has Duke competing for national championships on a yearly basis, the fact that his first team lost in the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend will likely be a mere footnote in his story. Instead, this team will be remembered for building the foundation for his program with their resilience, and forever honored with an ACC Championship banner in Cameron’s rafters.
Lest we forget, “The Class That Saved Coach K” didn’t win a National Championship either; in fact, it took them four years together to get out of the tournament’s first weekend. But that group is a part of Duke lore because, as seniors, they won an ACC Championship and made it to the Final Four, laying the groundwork for the Coach K dynasty to come. Arguably, this year’s Duke squad compressed the challenges and eventual triumphs faced by that group into a single season, fitting given the current landscape of college basketball.
If Scheyer is able to even approach the success of his predecessor, we might one day think back on Lively, Whitehead, Filipowski and Roach like we do Alarie, Bilas, Dawkins, and Henderson. It surely sounds ludicrous now, especially less than 24 hours after a disappointing loss in Scheyer’s first season. But history will be the final judge on the 2022-2023 Duke Blue Devils, not one bad matchup. With everything this team, and Coach Scheyer, overcame this season, there’s reason to believe that judge will be quite kind to this team.