Don’t Let Saturday Night Define Jon Scheyer’s First Two Seasons At Duke

In a sports landscape dominated by clickbait stories and hot take media coverage, the more nuanced reality is far too often overlooked. Sometimes, that reality takes the form of statements that, at first glance, might seem contradictory, but in reality describe a more complex situation.

Such is the case following Duke’s loss to UNC in Cameron Saturday night. At this point, it’s undeniable that this year’s Tar Heels are a horrible matchup for this year’s Blue Devils, and arguably just simply the superior team. But extrapolating two losses to Duke’s archrival into an indictment of Jon Scheyer is the epitome of catastrophizing. Scheyer’s squad may have come up short in the year’s two biggest games, but that doesn’t suddenly cancel out the strong foundation for the future he’s built in less than two years on the job.

Since Coach K embraced the one-and-done phenomenon, Duke fans have continuously been frustrated when their teams full of future NBA players would inevitably lose a surprising game (or two, or more!) to less talented, but more experienced, squads. In the era of the super-senior, that divide has been further exacerbated. While this year’s Blue Devil team, led by a senior and a core of sophomores rather than being overly reliant on 5* freshmen, might have been a squad of grizzled veterans in the 2010s, it’s arguably an even younger team in practice in 2024. North Carolina has fully embraced the era of the transfer portal and the availability of super seniors, supplementing a roster that already included fifth-year senior Armando Bacot with 25 year old transfer Cormac Ryan, and two more key transfers in Harrison Ingram and Jae’Lyn Withers. Duke, in contrast, has one super senior in backup center Ryan Young, who is also the lone transfer on the squad.

Those who are frustrated Duke didn’t mine the transfer portal in the offseason to fill holes in their roster are entirely justified, even if the story isn’t that simple: by all accounts Duke was the preferred destination of coveted transfer center Ernest Udeh Jr. this summer before admissions issues presented an insurmountable roadblock. When transfers work, like UNC’s have this season, and two years ago when Brady Manek proved to be the key unlocking the potential of a squad also led by Bacot and RJ Davis, they can push good teams to be great. But relying on them is a volatile proposition at best: look no further than last season’s UNC squad, the pre-season No. 1 team in the country that failed to make the tournament thanks in large part to transfer Pete Nance not filling Manek’s void.

Scheyer seems to have consciously chosen to eschew volatility for long-term stability and teams with a higher ceiling. He famously said he wants to change how Duke recruits to create older, more cohesive teams. Duke fans have seen glimpses of the dividends that might be paid by that strategy this year in a Blue Devil team that went 15-5 in the ACC, including road wins in places like Raleigh and Blacksburg that have lately been houses of horrors. But despite the presence of Young and senior Jeremy Roach, this Blue Devil team still isn’t old, especially in comparison to a Tar Heel squad that starts two players more than 24 years old.

It may take another season or two before we see whether Scheyer’s strategy is the right one, as the college game’s elder statesmen are filtered out and Duke works to retain juniors and seniors developed in Durham to complement talented freshmen. Two games against UNC in Scheyer’s second season certainly won’t be the final judgement, especially when the makeup of that UNC team will be rendered a historical idiosyncrasy in just one more year.

Until that judgement is rendered, this Duke team is still 24-7, the No. 10 team in the country according to the NCAA’s NET Rankings, and in great position to compete for an ACC Tournament Title next weekend. Once the sting of a disappointing senior night fades, Blue Devil fans should realize there’s plenty to still be excited for this March, and perhaps even more to be excited for in the future.

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