Jon Scheyer remembers being forced to attend his sister’s high school variety show as a kid. He was in junior high, and the show conflicted with the single most important event in his life at the time: the Duke-North Carolina basketball game.
Luckily, his dad understood. They went to the show, Scheyer said, but his dad snuck in a small portable TV, which Jon kept low in his lap so his sisters wouldn’t notice.
“I grew up on these moments and these games,” Scheyer said.
When Duke and UNC face off for the first time this season, Scheyer will have a far different vantage point.
For the first time since 1961, Duke and UNC will take the court without either Dean Smith or Mike Krzyzewski coaching one of the teams. A year ago, Hubert Davis took over for another legend, Roy Williams, and led North Carolina to two wins over the Blue Devils and an eventual trip to the national championship game. Now, it’s Scheyer’s turn to write a new chapter in the rivalry as Duke’s first year head coach, replacing Krzyzewski.
“I never really dreamed of being the head coach in this game. It’s not something you can even think about. So, it’s a privilege and an honor, but honestly, the preparation will be like every other game.”
Duke’s first season with a new head coach has fallen short of lofty expectations, but the Blue Devils have won their last two games and could be peaking at the perfect time.
Scheyer talked with ESPN about following in the footsteps of a legendary coach, getting his first shot at a win over the Tar Heels, and whether Duke can take any lessons from Davis and the Tar Heels’ 2022 tournament run.
Next stop: Cameron Indoor 😈
See you there! @DukeMBB pic.twitter.com/siwuWqm7uG
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) January 29, 2023
Last year, Hubert Davis was the new coach following a legend at North Carolina. Have you talked at all about his journey last year or learned anything from seeing how that team grew throughout the year?
Scheyer: We actually just ran into each other on the road [in Orlando] and we just talked about our families. We didn’t even get into much else. Just the fact of, when you’re in this position, you’re trying to protect your family from any noise or anything, and they’re invested in it, too. He’s got three kids, I’ve got three kids. I know he’s a family man, and that’s important to him. I just respect him balancing being a coach at a place like North Carolina and being a dad, and I’m trying to do the same thing.
And obviously, they went through a lot of adversity in Year 1, and they battled and were in a position at the end of the year to make a run at it. I give him a lot of credit for just sticking with it and doing that.
You always hear the narrative that you don’t want to be the guy who follows The Guy, because you’re held to an almost impossible standard. If you go back one year, a lot of UNC fans didn’t think Hubert was close to that standard, but you block out the noise and get better. It seems like you guys are taking a similar path, and Duke might be playing its best ball of the year now?
Scheyer: I think because of seeing, look, it’s happened with a lot of teams. I know a lot of people this time last year were writing Kansas off, and Kansas goes and wins the whole thing.
I think just having a year to still not be in that seat but just to really have an amazing look at it through Coach K’s lens, I can’t tell you what the noise has been this year. For me, I’ve kept my head down. I love what this group has done so far. Our two nonconference losses were to [two teams who’ve been No. 1]. Six of our first 10 games in conference were on the road. We’re getting better. There’s a pride in this group in what we’ve done and ultimately we’re putting ourselves in a position to be at our best towards the end of the year, which I think we’re on track to do.
You had so much time to see firsthand how Mike Krzyzewski handled things, but once you’re in the big chair, there’s always things you come across where you have to make your own calls. How has that evolved for you this year? Have you thought about what Mike would do in situations or has it been more of “What would I do?”
Scheyer: It goes back to the preparation that I had really allowed me to feel strongly about who I am and what I value. There are obviously things that come up in real time you just can’t prepare for — game situations, injuries, things you can’t predict. But it’s been following my instincts. Naturally, I think a lot of things Coach K would have done too. I’ve been around him such a long time. But really, that hasn’t been a thing with me. I’ve followed my instincts and go for it.
Have I batted 1,000? Well, nobody does. But at the end of the day — you talked about the guy who follows The Guy. The only regret I would have is not following my instinct, because I feel very confident in what we’re doing and what we’re building. And you have to just stick with it and keep doubling down when you hit adversity.
This is your first game against North Carolina, and that rivalry means so much. Do you try to treat it as just the next game or do you lean into the fact that, yeah, this one is a little bigger?
Scheyer: Well, you have to address it. You can’t just ignore it. But from my past experiences — very often you lose the game before or the game after because, like “College GameDay” is here. They feel it, they know. That means you’re going to be prepared to give it your all, but you can’t focus on what’s around you. You have to focus on doing your job and being prepared. That’s what I’m going to be doing myself and talking about to the team.
Personally for you, does it feel different that this is the first one for you as head coach?
Scheyer: I don’t want to make this out to be the Super Bowl for us. It’s a big game. It’s great to be in this game and all that but I know there’s a bigger picture – win or lose. Our intention, just like them, I know both of us want to win and that’s what makes it a special thing, but we have a game 48 hours later against one of the best teams in our league in Miami, on the road. That’s the nature of the beast and what we have to be ready for.
Question: It’s taken a lot of trial and error and some tough lessons from the start of the season, but you guys have been playing really well lately. Do you feel like Duke is in a position now to really make a run?
Scheyer: We see the vision now. I don’t think there’s any secret at the beginning of the year when you have so many new guys, they’re feeling it out, feeling each other out. We’ve learned what it takes to win and how to play together and now it’s just a matter of how to do it consistently and doing it against different teams and strategies, but I think we’re a really good basketball team and I honestly think our room to grow is still as big as any team in the country over the next four to six weeks.