Wait, Duke actually became likable? You better believe it
ORLANDO — Duke’s 3 player representatives stood outside their locker room at the Amway Center. Kyle Filipowski, Dereck Lively II and captain Jeremy Roach all eagerly awaited their direction to make their way to their first press conference of the NCAA Tournament. Roach was the lone player of that trio — and the lone returning starter from last year’s Final Four squad — who had experienced March Madness, yet he was the one who tried to sneak a peak through the tunnel to watch San Diego State getting shots up before being ushered off to speak to the media.
Rookie coach Jon Scheyer emerged from the Duke locker room to follow the players, and shook the hand of each media member who awaited the group ahead of Thursday’s first-round matchup against Oral Roberts. Scheyer, as he would say 20 minutes later, learned not to take anything for granted this time of year both as a former Duke star and now as its new face of the program.
Gone are the days of the legendary, but stuffy and unrelatable Mike Krzyzewski. This is the new Duke.
Relatable? More than it used to be.
Dare I say … likable? Absolutely.
Hold the phone. That jersey will always carry a certain mystique. For many, Christian Laettner, Grayson Allen, Jay Williams, JJ Redick, Gerald Henderson Jr. (don’t forget about the 2007 Tyler Hansbrough cheap shot) and perhaps even Scheyer himself will always bring a certain aura that Duke will never escape, with or without Krzyzewski. The floor-slapping, entitled, private school, elitist associations don’t just disappear with a coaching change.
Fair. But hear me out.
As Duke approaches the NCAA Tournament, this 2023 version of the Blue Devils is anything but “entitled.” It’s far more blue collar (pun intended) than anything. Go back to Feb. 14. Duke, fresh off a ho-hum 68-64 home victory against a floundering Notre Dame squad, was on the 8-seed line in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology. Take that for what it is. Lunardi went on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt that night and quieted any notion that Duke was capable of going on a late-season run.
“They can improve a little bit, Scott, maybe a 6 or a 7, depending on how they do in the ACC Tournament. But let’s be honest: this is the résumé of a team that doesn’t get out of the first weekend. 3-7 in Quad 1, only 2 true road wins, at Georgia Tech and Boston College, very pedestrian. And I would ask, ‘Is it just about Duke, or is it an indictment of the ACC overall because the opportunities for improvement simply don’t exist. Did you know, since 2019 when they had 3 No. 1 seeds out of the ACC, they haven’t had one since? That’ll be the longest stretch in over 30 years.”
Lunardi was wrong. How about a 5-seed? How about a 9-game winning streak heading into the NCAA Tournament wherein Duke avenged all 4 of its post-New Year losses and surrendered 70 points just once — they allowed 70 points 8 times in the previous 18 games — and won a 59-49 rock fight against Virginia to claim the ACC Tournament. The Blue Devils had to scratch and claw to improve their seeding. Scheyer pointed to how Lively “changed our team” once he got healthy around the halfway mark of the season.
“I really think physicality has just gotten better overall. I think we’ve been able to take physicality from other teams, being able to not get knocked off our line or being able to take physicality in the paint, outside the 3,” Lively said. “And just being able to throw the first punch, being able to come out in the first four minutes just to try to punch them in the mouth first so that they get knocked back is something that we’ve been trying to focus on.”
Don’t get it twisted. Lively meant a metaphorical punch, not some Duke cheap shot.
That 5-seed was a prevalent topic of conversation in Orlando. Players were asked about being not seeded higher and also not getting a closer game to play in Greensboro. “We’re not entitled to anything,” Jacob Grandison said. Dariq Whitehead added that while that was discussed within the locker room, “I’m sure we would’ve all liked to have been in Greensboro, but we’re in Orlando, and we’ve gotta get it done.”
“What we learned all year is not to expect any handouts,” Duke freshman Mark Mitchell said. “People say we’re not the Duke of old, we’re not this, we’re not that … all we can do is play.”
New Duke or not, it still has a target on its back, especially in that ever-daunting 5-12 matchup against an Oral Roberts squad that ranks No. 3 nationally in scoring and is No. 2 in 3-pointers per game. It’ll be a unique matchup facing a free-shooting Oral Roberts team that returns 4 of its top 6 players from the 2021 squad who reached the Sweet 16 as a 15-seed.
Would a national audience love to see Duke fall in an opening round upset like it did in 2014, 2012 and 2007? Duh. Scheyer was a freshman on that 2006-07 Duke squad, which fell as a 6-seed to 11-seed VCU. This year marked the first time since that 2007 squad that a Duke team reached the NCAA Tournament and wasn’t awarded a 4-seed or better.
Does that make the Blue Devils plucky underdogs? Eh, maybe not. We’re still probably decades from seeing Duke ever get any sort of “Cinderella” narrative, especially if Duke continues to recruit the 5-star McDonald’s All-Americans like Roach, Filipowski, Lively, Mitchell and Whitehead.
But while this Duke team isn’t lacking talent, it is probably lacking a lottery player. For the past 3 decades, Duke has been synonymous with either the polarizing 4-year, “thorn in your side” guys or the 1-and-done lottery picks. This team might not have either.
Let’s be honest, though. This is really about the change in leadership.
Scheyer is the former college star who walked the walk, yet Duke players insist he doesn’t hark back to his playing days. “I didn’t know Coach Scheyer was actually good at basketball until my first official visit,” Mitchell said (Mitchell was 6 years old when Scheyer’s college career ended with a national title at Duke in 2010). Scheyer is confident without coming across as cocky, and in the team’s shoot-around later that day, Scheyer is more of an invested bystander with his assistants directing the action.
“He’s passionate,” Whitehead said. “He’s gonna tell you what you need to hear whether you like it or not, which I feel like is great because not a lot of coaches like to do that … we talk about it all the time. He just puts it out there for us and making sure that we’re in tune with what’s going on instead of keeping us out of the loop.”
Scheyer is a Krzyzewski disciple, but their differences are well-documented. Spend any time around media members who cover the team regularly and they’ll let you know that press conferences are conducted in a different way. Scheyer doesn’t attempt to speak for players and he won’t try to humiliate a reporter for a question he doesn’t like.
If Krzyzewski was your grandpa who made you feel like you were walking on eggshells, Scheyer is your buddy who gets along with everybody in the room.
There might not be anything that Scheyer can do to ever get on Krzyzewski’s level of success. That climb is long and steep, regardless of whether Scheyer can emerge out of Orlando and lead Duke to the Sweet 16. And maybe it’s unrealistic to think that Duke can truly shake its reputation as being “entitled,” but darn it if this group isn’t doing its best. Perhaps we can have a better understanding of that subject after a decade of Scheyer-led Duke teams.
For now, though, this team appears to be on a mission — whether you like it or not.