What would be worse - to make it to the Final Four and lose to your biggest rival? Or to have your biggest rival deny you a chance to make the field in the first place?
UNC fans have had a lot of fun taunting Duke since last spring’s Final Four but the tables have turned once again, as they so often do in this greatest of rivalries and now Duke’s win Saturday likely means that UNC has to win the ACC Tournament to even make the NCAA tournament.
Bit of a comedown, really, but a nice evening for Duke.
We’re not positive about this, but this may be the first time that a rookie coach in this most celebrated rivalry has ever swept the other side in the regular season.
We don’t know for sure about Frank McGuire in 1952-53 or Vic Bubas in 1959-60. However, we’re pretty sure that Dean Smith didn’t do it in 1961-62 if only because UNC was so devastated by scandal. We’re quite sure that Bucky Waters, Neil McGeachy, Bill Foster and Mike Krzyzewski all failed to do it. Bill Guthridge didn’t do it. Brad Doherty didn’t do it. Roy Williams didn’t and neither did Hubert Davis.
Jon Scheyer has, though. When you run through that list of coaches, it’s incredible: McGuire, Bubas, Smith, Foster, Krzyzewski, Williams - none of them were able to do this.
It’s particularly sweet because of the insane amount of pressure that Scheyer has been under following Krzyzewski, who is considered by many to the the GOAT.
We looked at the bench at various times this season, both in Cameron and on TV, and at times we noticed an obvious difference between Scheyer and Krzyzewski: Coach K learned a long time ago to control his emotions in public, at least when he wanted to. Duke could be losing by 20 and he’d still look the same.
Scheyer hasn’t mastered that so at times you could see that when his young team struggled, it weighed on him.
And Duke was significantly set back by early injuries to Dereck Lively and Dariq Whitehead and then, later, to Jeremy Roach.
A lot of Duke fans were unhappy, somehow expecting that nothing would change with Krzyzewski gone, which was totally loony (leave alone only two key returning players and adding seven freshmen and four transfers).
At one point, some idiot on Twitter -probably more, but we just saw the one - called for Scheyer to be fired. There might even be a URL - fireScheyer.com (yep, there sure is).
Which just goes to show how stupid some people can be.
A 34-year-old rookie coach, Scheyer had a number of challenges this season, not least of all what we just mentioned.
Yet Duke continued to work and improve, and finished the regular season with a six-game win streak good enough to tie for third place in the ACC (Clemson got the third seed by tiebreaker).
You can look at a lot of things to measure Duke’s growth, but let us suggest a few from Saturday.
First, the two players most highly regarded this year, Lively and Whitehead, got in foul trouble, which should have crippled Duke. But it didn’t. And unlike earlier in the season, Lively never got a fifth and indeed got a key rebound with :10 left.
Second, turnovers were a nightmare for Duke earlier in the season. With a lot on the line against their biggest rival, the Blue Devils had just eight, and only two in the second half.
Fourth, while UNC’s Armando Bacot finished with 17 points, he shot just 4-8, getting nine of his points on the line. Bacot has tormented Duke for a while now. Not Saturday. Not like that.
Pete Nance only took four shots and hit just one. The admirable Leaky Black was just 3-16 and 1-7 on threes.
Incidentally, after some torrid three point shooting lately, the Heels hit just 5-23, more or less returning to form.
And while RJ Davis had his moments, Duke held him to 6-13. Caleb Love, who never met a shot he didn't like, was considerably worse, hitting jut 3-12.
Most impressively perhaps, Duke shut down the Tar Heels in crunch time, not allowing a single basket for the last 4:20.
Obviously the players deserve enormous credit for the overall improvement and that’s as it should be. But don’t forget that it was Scheyer who was getting ripped after losses, who was constantly second-guessed and subject to withering criticism for every perceived error or shortcoming.
Well, you can move him up from good job to nearly brilliant job. He’s really brought this team along in a big way and did so under enormous pressures that most of us can barely comprehend.
Obviously you can’t say that next year is going to be good too. UNC fans will testify to that arrogance, presumably, since the preseason #1 team may not even make the field.
Still, what Duke has accomplished is pretty hardcore: 3rd place in the ACC, 23-8, a certain tournament bid in the mail - and all with significant injuries and a ridiculous amount of freshmanitis to overcome.
All things considered, it’s been a smashing debut for young Scheyer. Duke fans should feel optimistic. The program is in good hands.