Friedlander: Extra year of preparation gives Duke's Jon Scheyer an advantage UNC's Hubert Davis didn't have
CHAPEL HILL, NC — Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski announced their retirement plans within 2 months of each other during the spring of 2021.
Both hand-picked trusted assistants to take over their storied programs.
That, however, is where the similarities end.
While North Carolina’s Williams walked away immediately, stopping only to kiss the center court logo after what turned out to be his final game at Smith Center, Krzyzewski stuck around for 1 final season at Duke before riding off into the sunset.
Coach K’s decision to stage what amounted to a farewell tour while he chased an elusive 6th national championship was immediately derided as a self-aggrandizing “look at me” attention grab. He did get a lot of love from a certain 4-letter television network, not to mention a nice cache of gifts during his celebrated victory lap around the ACC.
Intentional or not, he also helped his successor, Jon Scheyer, be more prepared for the challenge of replacing a legend than Davis was at UNC.
Both first-time head coaches were properly groomed for their jobs. Each spent at least 7 seasons on the bench at their respective schools watching and learning from their Hall of Fame mentors. Both starred at their schools as players, too.
But there’s a big difference between observing someone else running a program and being the man responsible for making the kind of difficult split-second decisions that often determine the outcome of games.
Then having to explain those decisions when they don’t go well.
Unlike Davis, who was forced to make an immediate transition to the 1st chair and figure things out on the fly, Scheyer had a full season as the Blue Devils’ coach-in-waiting to get a valuable head start in learning what to expect in his new role.
“I feel like it’s really helped me the way Duke handled it and Coach K and his openness with me, especially last year,” Scheyer said recently. “Just talking through, ‘Here’s what I see right here.’ His perspective with everything has been incredibly helpful.”
That’s not to say Davis has had to go it alone. Williams has maintained a highly visible presence around UNC’s program, both at games and as a sounding board for his former assistant.
And Davis did beat Krzyzewski twice and get the Tar Heels to the Final Four last season.
But he’s seemed overwhelmed at times this season as his veteran team teeters on the brink of becoming the 1st preseason No. 1 to miss out on the NCAA Tournament since the event expanded in 1985.
Despite the return of 4 starters and several reserves, UNC has battled complacency, chemistry and a variety of other issues as they head into Saturday’s traditional regular-season finale against the Blue Devils.
It’s been a struggle that’s taught Davis a valuable lesson in his education as a young. at least in terms of experience, head coach.
“The No. 1 lesson I’ve learned this year is that as a 2nd-year head coach is that every year is different,” he said. “It is always a learning process.
“I’m not perfect. I never have thought that I know it all. I love being in a position of listening and learning, and that’s where I am now. And that’s where I’ll be for the continuation of my career.”
Scheyer has also experienced his share of growing pains. So far, at least, they seem to have been a lot less painful than those experienced by his rival 8 miles down the road.
His Blue Devils have overcome an early rash of injuries and some painful, unexpected road losses to begin trending in the right direction at just the right time. They’ve won 5 straight as they go for a sweep of their regular season series with the Tar Heels and still have the potential to earn a top 4 seeding in next week’s ACC Tournament.
It’s a development that can be directly attributed to the lead time Scheyer was afforded before taking over the program.
And not only because of the knowledge passed on to him by Krzyzewski.
“Maybe as big as anything was being able to recruit our team and get the guys you wanted here ahead of time, because I believe in this group,” Scheyer said. “I believe in every one of these guys that are here. It wasn’t a group that was put together at the last second.”
Other than junior point guard Jeremy Roach and reserve Jaylen Blakes, everyone else is in their 1st year in the program.
Davis didn’t have the luxury of building a team to his own specifications the way Scheyer did. Although the roster he inherited from Williams was hardly thrown together at the “last second,” it’s not exactly the best fit for the free-flowing, perimeter-oriented style he’d prefer.
Just one more example of the difference between Duke and UNC and the way they’ve arrived at this moment.
The advantage that disparity gives Scheyer and his Blue Devils might not make be enough to offset the homecourt edge the more desperate Tar Heels will have on Saturday.
But it is an advantage.
And at this time of the year, even the smallest advantage can make a big difference.