I was sitting in my dorm room on March 26th, 2009, when Duke University’s basketball team got dismantled by Villanova in the NCAA Tournament. The final score of the game was Villanova 77, Duke 54, but the final score was not indicative of the action. After a first half where Duke only trailed by 3 — 26 to 23 — Jay Wright’s Wildcats went on a second-half blitz to outscore the Blue Devils, who for the entire game were barely holding on, 51-31.
The recipe to Duke’s demise that season was obvious: they were too slow, they were too small, and their backcourt — their guards — were totally incapable of playing alongside (let alone guarding) athletic playmakers on opposing teams. Despite Villanova being a 3-seed while Duke was a 2, it became evident early on that head coach Mike Krzyzewski had no answers for Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham.
Perhaps more than anything, the lesson of that game — from Duke’s perspective anyway — was that they wouldn’t be able to compete moving forward by running the same old script. Long gone were the days of talented, if un-athletic, guards such as Bobby Hurley (in the early 90’s), J.J. Redick (in the early 2000’s), or highly-heralded prospects such as Greg Paulus (who graduated in 2009 and was a senior on the team who lost to Villanova).
The problem in 2009, following the embarrassing defeat in the big dance, was that the recruiting season was over. That year Duke signed three prospects: 6’9″ forward Ryan Kelly (who turned into a solid college player), 6’10” Mason Plumlee (who has more or less been a rotation player in the NBA since 2013), and 6’4″ shooting guard Andre Dawkins (whose college career was never really the same after his sister passed away in a tragic car accident). What needed to be addressed was backcourt play, but all Duke signed were a couple forwards and a shooting guard who couldn’t do much else.
Funny thing happened in 2010: despite these flaws Duke somehow won a National Championship. One of those un-athletic guards I was talking about — Jon Scheyer — played a pivotal role on that team, alongside running mates Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. That troika managed to slug through an NCAA Tournament as a #1 seed, and ended up defeating Butler 61-59 in one of the more classic National Championship games of the 21st century. It was clearly the worst of Coach K’s five championship teams, regardless of it being an extremely high bar. It just wasn’t what you expect. Scheyer, Singler and Smith were all juniors; Bryan Zoubek and Lance Thomas were seniors. It was a group of veterans, and the last true team Mike Krzyzewski ever produced.
After that Duke became a factory for one-and-done players, similar to what Kentucky has been known for, just without the stigma of paying prospects. To combat the lack of athleticism that I’ve referenced from the 2009 loss to Villanova, below are the premier prospects Coach K landed thereafter:
2010: Kyrie Irving 2011: Austin Rivers, Quinn Cook 2012: Rasheed Sulaimon 2013: Jabari Parker, Semi Ojeleye 2014: Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen 2015: Brandon Ingram, Chase Jeter, Luke Kennard 2016: Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Frank Jackson 2017: Marvin Bagley, Gary Trent Jr, Wendell Carter 2018: Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones
I left some names off this list and cut it off in 2018 because the point is clear: Coach K moved away from developmental players and found solace in NBA-ready talent. It offered him a better chance of winning a National Championship year after year, and it also took away much of my relationship to the school and my fandom for it.
I grew up with the 2001 National Championship team that never would have existed had it been 10 years later, because the players were so good that they simply would have left before the dream was realized. They were led by senior Shane Battier (who went on to be the 8th overall pick in the NBA Draft), and sophomores Jason “Jay” Williams (second overall pick), Mike Dunleavy Jr. (3rd overall pick) and Carlos Boozer (who I believe was drafted in the second round but had the best career out of any of them). Chris Duhon was a freshman.
It was a legendary team, but it came at a time when guys stuck around in college for multiple years. Williams, Dunleavy Jr. and Boozer all came back for their junior season; Duhon stayed all four years. And the class that came after them, which featured J.J. Redick (my favorite Duke player of all-time) and Sheldon Williams, both stayed all four years even though they would have been first round picks had they left at any point.
That is why, in a way, the Jon Scheyer-led 2010 National Championship team is so special to me in retrospect. I’ll be the first to say it wasn’t my favorite Duke team ever — if truth be told it probably wouldn’t even crack the top-5 — but I wish I’d been allowed to appreciate them more at the time. I just didn’t know they would be the last real group of players who stuck around in college, and really built something, to see it realized in terms of a National Title. Every Duke team since, sans the following year when Scheyer and Smith came back, has been a collection of star-studded freshmen sprinkled in with a couple role-playing upperclassmen.
I guess it makes sense, given the way 2009 unfolded when Duke couldn’t guard the athletes — especially considering that Coach K was entering the twilight of his coaching career and was putting all his eggs in the basket of winning another title before he went out. He was granted that in 2015, but it turned out to be a flash in the pan. Even with Zion, RJ, and Cam in 2019 — three guys who were drafted in the top-10 — Krzyzewski was unable to cut down the nets.
The closest he got was this year before losing in the Final Four to arch-rival North Carolina in the Final Four. By means of poetic justice, Carolina started two seniors, a junior and two sophomores, while Duke’s primary lineup featured one junior, one sophomore and three freshmen.
I am perhaps in the minority, but I am not at all sad to see Coach K head off into retirement. The fact that he had an entire season to have the media slurp him up, and bask in the glory of his own ego and accomplishments, should tell you all you need to know. Over the last 10 or so years he had a way of making everything about himself. After losses he came across as petty and petulant. He was not worthy of riding into the sunset as a champion.
In some ways I am excited about the new era of Duke basketball — namely that Coach K isn’t going to be the head coach — but my instincts tell me Jon Scheyer will not be able to duplicate Krzyzewski’s relative success running a one-and-done program. Just look at the class of players Duke has signed for the upcoming season. Per Rivals dot com they have letters of intent from each of the top three players in the country. How in the world can they take seriously a guy like Jon Scheyer? I’m not saying he won’t be a good coach, but future lottery picks have no reason to give a single goddamn about what a former college player has to say to them. Coach K coached LeBron and Kobe and every other superstar during the Olympics. He won National Championships. He has a type of cache that players respect.
Scheyer, on the other hand, would be much better suited doing it the old fashioned way. By bringing in marginal, or solid, high school prospects and really building a program. If he wasn’t at Duke, there’s no way he would be able to bring in the most talented recruiting class in the country. I would rather see him earn his stripes, and lose, with a group of players commensurate to his coaching experience than watch him underachieve with NBA prospects who have no loyalty or care to anything related to Duke after their one season is through.
These are my own biases. I think a world exists where Scheyer is actually hungry, and that he will get more out of these players than Coach K did. I just try to think practically, putting myself in the shoes of 18 and 19 year-olds who are looking forward to getting paid millions of dollars at the next level, and I don’t see Scheyer as the right man for that job. I am probably looking to far in at my own romance for building programs, for doing things the right way, but these are the thoughts of a grown man who still longs for the team who made him so happy during his childhood.
I have been somewhat checked out on Duke since the 2019 season, because I have developed a fatigue for Coach K and the one-and-done system. I will be back next year, much like I was invested in Duke’s Final Four run during this most recent NCAA Tournament, for I am genuinely intrigued by what a new face and a new voice has to offer. Duke, to me, will always be Duke; I just wish in this instance the future looked more like the past.