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“Getting Old” Takes More Than One Season

As Jon Scheyer puts his stamp on the Blue Devil program, growing pains like in Chapel Hill are inevitable

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NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina
North Carolina Tar Heels guard Cormac Ryan (3) reacts at the end of the game as Duke Blue Devils guardsTyrese Proctor (5) and Jared McCain (0) are in the forground at Dean E. Smith Center. 
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Around this time last year, The Athletic posted an article with a headline that most Duke fans cheered: “Duke basketball recruiting is changing.” In it, Jon Scheyer outlined his intention to create roster continuity at Duke and, perhaps more importantly, put more experienced teams on the floor.

It was a development most Duke fans cheered. Despite the success of Coach K’s final chapter, typified by one-and-done talent, a large segment of the fan base waxed nostalgic for the previous generation’s experienced, cohesive teams. Those cheers got even louder, as did expectations for the second-year head coach, when Scheyer masterfully managed his roster in his first off-season, securing the return of three sophomores with legitimate NBA aspirations.

Perhaps lost in that noise was the reality that sophomores are still, by definition, young. And that youth was on display in Duke’s loss in Chapel Hill Saturday night.

Relatively speaking, this is one of the most experienced Duke teams in recent memory. Objectively speaking, it remains one of the youngest high level teams in the nation: in the pre-season, analysis by ESPN’s John Gasaway projected the Blue Devils to have the second youngest average age amongst his Top 25. North Carolina, in contrast, was projected to be one of the most veteran squads.

So perhaps fans shouldn’t be so surprised that a young Duke team lost to a veteran Top 5 Tar Heel squad in Chapel Hill.

In fact, were it not the latest edition in the greatest rivalry in college basketball, Blue Devil fans might be much more inclined to echo Coach K’s “next play” mantra. From a birds-eye view, there were plenty of indications that this was just an off night for Duke: a Blue Devil team averaging 38% shooting from deep shot just 26% on largely good looks, while North Carolina’s supporting cast (in the form of Harrison Ingram and Armando Bacot) shot a combined 18-of-25 from the field to make up for a solid Duke defensive gameplan to limit All-America candidate RJ Davis.

Yet, Duke certainly did not pass the eye test in its highest profile game of the season, with many fingers being pointed at that returning core of sophomores. Tyrese Proctor made an impact defensively, but was limited to only 26 minutes due to foul trouble and scored only 2 points. Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell, while finishing with fine stat lines, both were extremely quiet in the first half. Filipowski’s struggles from beyond the arc, where he shot 1-for-6, were particularly jarring.

But, despite being overlooked by much of the fanbase, such growing pains were always going to be a necessary step in building the modern program Scheyer envisions. Despite Scheyer’s incredible recruiting success, his classes have been different from Coach K’s in their top-level talent: there’s a notable drop-off between freshmen who are locks for the NBA Draft’s Top 10 picks and other 5 star talent. The former types of talent are much better suited to compensate for inexperience. The latter, especially when competing with COVID-era super-seniors, are much more vulnerable to the vagaries of youth.

Duke now gets to decide what Saturday night’s performance means. If this team can rebound and grow from a humbling experience, Blue Devil fans might very well end up chalking this loss up as an outlier where a young core didn’t play its best against a stellar older squad on the road. If this disappointment poisons the well moving forward, this young team could fall well short of its lofty pre-season expectations.

But neither scenario should disproportionately color fans opinion of Scheyer, who lest we forget is still in his second season and remains one of the youngest coaches in the sport. Scheyer inherited a program fresh off a Final Four, but with only one returning contributor (Jeremy Roach) from that squad. Scheyer easily could have adapted his predecessor’s team-building strategy and exclusively targeted Top 10, one-and-done style recruits to patch the holes in the roster. Instead, he chose the arguably harder path of reshaping the Blue Devil program for the modern age: targeting the “right” transcendent talents (like the incoming Cooper Flagg, or last year’s Dereck Lively II and pre-injury Dariq Whitehead), but otherwise building a team of players who might need two or three years to reach their full potential.

Instead of patching leaks in the program’s hull each year, he’s choosing to building a new, modern system that’s more resilient to those leaks in the long term.

Whether or not that strategy pays dividends won’t be determined by one loss in Chapel Hill, no matter how disappointing. After all, when Scheyer outlined his long-term plans last year, he didn’t just want his team to “get old,” but also to have continuity. In practice, that means sacrificing the instant gratification of a super-senior transfer or a class of multiple one-and-done talents for the longer road of developing a cohesive core of talent over time. The dividends on those investments may take longer to arrive, but Scheyer is banking on them being much more significant.

And there’s still plenty of reason to believe those dividends might start paying out this March.