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The first question you have to ask about Duke Basketball right now is this: how is the Transition going?
If you’ve been under a rock for the last couple of years, Mike Krzyzewski announced his retirement as Duke’s coach on June 2nd, 2021, naming Jon Scheyer as his successor. K coached one more season as part of the Transition, but Scheyer was on the way.
It was a popular choice. Fellow assistant Chris Carrawell said he was so excited that he went out in his front yard and ran around. The players seemed genuinely thrilled. And why not? Like virtually everything in Coach K’s career, this was carefully planned and has a chance of being a major success. And aside from Maryland fans, we can’t think of anyone who sincerely dislikes Scheyer. Like UNC’s Hubert Davis, he’s immensely likable.
We used present tense about the Transition because after a 42-year career that stands up to anyone’s, including John Wooden’s, you don’t switch gears in a big hurry.
Krzyzewski finished his career with 1,202 wins, 101 NCAA tournament wins and a 65-22 record in the ACC Tournament.
His teams won 15 ACC Tournaments, got to the NCAA regional finals 13 times and won the whole thing five times - 1991, 1992, the first back-to-back champions since the Walton Gang at UCLA in the early ‘70s, and then again in 2001, 2010 and 2015.
He also restored the luster to the US National team with three Olympic gold medals and a career record of 75-1.
It’s kind of surreal really. Not only did he have unprecedented success (Wooden never had to deal with a seeded tournament like K did, much less a 68 team field), but year in and year out he maintained incredible consistency.
In 2005 he successfully recruited Scheyer. Scheyer started as a freshman and was good out of the gate.
By his junior year, he moved to point guard, which seemed surprising at the time, but it turned out to be a brilliant move. Much like Steve Kerr, Scheyer didn’t look like a great athlete, but he was unbelievably smart and took great care of the ball. Duke’s team in his last two seasons were not overwhelming athletically and not overly fast. Scheyer minimized turnovers and got the ball where it needed to be. He wasn’t necessarily a natural point guard, but he became a great point guard and exactly what Duke needed with that group.
And of course in 2009-10, he led Duke to the national championship against a tenacious Butler team that fought until the very last seconds of that game.
Although he was undrafted, Scheyer was making a good impression with the Miami Heat in summer league ball when an eye injury brought his playing days to a premature end. Soon he moved into coaching, joining K’s Duke staff in 2014.
He showed promise early and often. Remember when Jeff Capel left and people thought Duke’s high-level recruiting was over?
Didn’t happen. Scheyer emerged as arguably a better recruiter.
Remember the UNC game with not one but two Duke buzzer beaters?
It was Scheyer who prepped Tre Jones for that moment, explaining where the ball was likely to go if he missed on purpose.
After he was named coach-in-waiting, he put on a tour-de-force in recruiting.
Expectations were sky high. Many predicted greatness.
And then the games started and Duke ran into some early obstacles.
First, star freshman Dariq Whitehead suffered an injury that required surgery. Dereck Lively took some time to get over an injury of his own and didn’t really get going for several weeks. Tyrese Proctor was a very promising guard but he didn’t get to Durham until quite late and took some time to catch up too.
Keep in mind that Duke only returned Jeremy Roach and Jaylen Blakes from Coach K’s final team. Not only did was there a new coach; there was nearly an entirely new roster.
Not surprisingly given these headwinds, Duke’s offense sputtered for some time early in the season, with ill-planned passes occasionally going into the stands. The offense was ragged for weeks and on occasion you could see the frustration and anxiety on Scheyer’s face. It takes some chutzpah to follow a guy who is considered by many to be the GOAT and certainly no worse than second best coach in college history. It can’t have been easy for him.
Yet while the offense struggled, the defense was winning games. And while there were some bad losses early, it’s not like the team was getting crushed every night. But there were some bad losses.
Duke fell to Purdue by 19 in late November, then lost at Wake Forest, 81-70. At NC State, the Pack outscored Duke 18-2 to start the game and things didn’t get much better the rest of the evening.
This roughly coincided with a toe injury for junior point guard Jeremy Roach, something which limited him for much of the season. If you’re counting, that’s three potential starters who had serious issues to overcome and one who had some catching up to do.
Scheyer eventually switched Proctor to the point and let Roach be more of a shooting guard. Whitehead never fully recovered, but Lively eventually got himself together and when he did, he completely changed Duke’s defense.
Duke still had some ups and downs, notably a brutal beatdown at Miami. But the team was healthier and more tough-minded. After a controversial loss at Virginia, where the officials blew a last-second call that would have sent Kyle Filipowski to the line with one second on the clock and a chance to win the game, everything clicked. Duke grew up and won 10 straight before losing to Tennessee’s version of MurderBall in the tournament.
Scheyer finished his first season with a record of 27-9 and an ACC Tournament championship.
It was a solid first year by any standard and that team overcame several key injuries and the pressure of the post-K era. Program and coach showed immense promise.
Still, just as we reserve judgement on UNC’s Davis for his up-and-down teams, we can’t say for sure what to expect from Scheyer’s team in just his second season either. For our part, we’re very optimistic, but you can’t know until you do. That’s just life.
It was a rewarding Year 1, but the Transition is not yet complete. We’ll take a closer look at how Scheyer has put his stamp on the program in Part II.