Saturday, July 13, 2024

Duke has another ACC title. The credit starts with his new coach, John Scheer


GREENSBORO, NC — The lyrics sound prophetic, pumping through the Greensboro Coliseum speakers with an ironic sound. Aside from all the visuals—showers of blue-and-white confetti, a full-blown syncopated bowl in a fist fist celebration—nothing can distract or drown out the Cascada chorus, and it climaxes at the perfect time:

“I can’t let you go, I want you in my life…”

As if there were a scripted entry to an evening of storybook stories, the words disappear and a man emerges from the crowd of cameras: John Sher, Duke’s first-year coach. Since this is Scheyer’s 14th season with the Blue Devils—four as a player, nine as an assistant coach, and now leading the program—he’s familiar with this landscape. Music. scraps. The interim stage is assembled in the Central region, and the ACC Championship trophy is to be handed over. He’s been here four times before, and he’s been named MVP of this tournament.

But this one is different: because he had never been in charge of this scene before. Now, as the 35-year-old captain of one of college basketball’s bloods, he’s in charge of everything befitting Duke, from X’s and O’s to game-wearing coaching staff. (For Saturday’s 59-49 win over Virginia, black sweatshirts, with matching sweatpants.)

and this is? The program’s 22nd ACC championship, after three wins in three days over three teams Duke had previously lost this season?

Damn right he’s responsible for that too.

In doing so, Scheer became the third coach ever to win an ACC championship in his senior season—after Vic Popas and Bill Gourtridge—and the first to do so in 25 years. Also, he is now the only person in league history to win a conference championship as a player and head coach. Dozens of coaches go their entire careers without achieving the feat, and yet here is Scheyer, all 34 games of his coaching career, making history.

Oh yes. And he did so in less than a calendar year after replacing the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history, Mike Krzyzewski.

“A lot of people can say, maybe they want this job, but they really want this job, and everything that goes with it?” Sheer’s father, Jim, said the athlete. “We’ve always talked about daring big, daring bravely. Just doing it — and that, I think, is what we’re most proud of.”

Jim paused for a moment, craned his neck to soak in the whole spectacle: “And obviously,” he adds, “the success is astonishing.”

Kyle Filipowski was named the ACC Tournament MVP. (John David Mercer / USA Today)

This, of course, is not a caper’s profession.

But… look at this, right?

“I mean, we knew,” said athletic director Nina King. “For everyone to see, he’s Duke. A great player, a great assistant coach, and now our head coach. I mean, what more can you say?”

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a lot actually. When Scheyer was first named as Krzyewski’s successor in the summer of 2021, it was done on purpose, in order to give him a platform. An 11-month apprenticeship, basically. There were critics—internal and external—of that plan, of the balancing force dynamic; Most coaches stop, walk away, decide they’ve had enough and leave the bench warm when they get out. Duke, on purpose, did not. It has tried to prioritize continuity from the 10,000-foot level, to prevent any real or perceived declines after decades of dominance.

“Some coaches can say that, but not everyone means or believes it, wanting the program to continue at such a high level — and he wanted it,” Shire said. “To allow me the opportunity to recruit these people… that would never have happened. For me, it was about the belief we had in each other, and it started with that moment there.”

Scheyer had to make the most of that time. An ambitious plan, sure: to get some of America’s best high school talent to come to Duke — and play for someone who’s never before been a head coach at any level.

But he did. When Terese Proctor — the Australian guard whose game Scheer loved and who chased down Virginia Keith Clarke on Saturday in a six-point, 1-of-9 shooting night — played a tournament in Las Vegas, Scheer was there watching every game and calling. Post it with notes. “Just give me advice,” said Proctor, before he officially signed. Same deal with Dereck Lively II, the #1 recruit in the country according to most ratings. “He was really the only coach I could build a relationship with; that’s why I came here,” Lively said. “I felt like he was the most real person to me.” That’s why, earlier in the season, when Lively was struggling with Bad trouble and fitting in with Duke’s system, Scheer was able to be brutally honest with him and elicit a positive response.

Since then, Lively has been, as Scheyer often says, a “unicorn” defensively, a 7-foot-1 shadow that can somehow cover both guards and centers.

In a sense, we probably should have seen this coming. When Scheyer was one of Krzyzewski’s assistants recruiting current team captain Jeremy Roach — who scored 19 of his career-high 23 points in the second half on Saturday, including several late free throws in the game — he was the first person on the Duke team to reach Five star leads. Then, when Roach tore his ACL as a high school senior, Scheer was there again, first with words of encouragement.

“It was like, ‘I’m still with you,'” Roach said. “You’ve overcame everything – even through this injury, it’s like we’re still with you. We still want you to come here. So that meant a lot to me, and when your coach has so much faith in you, you have to be on top.” appropriate level.

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Scheyer’s team certainly did that this week, putting the finishing touches on a nine-game winning streak that is currently among the longest in the country. It’s gone from a very good defensive team to an elite, legitimate top-20 team nationally since the beginning of February, according to Bartorvik. And this week, at long last, crime has risen to a matching level. Against both Pittsburgh and Miami, Duke averaged over 1,325 points per possession, apparently locked in more than last season’s Final Four team. It wasn’t quite a sterling Saturday, against the vaunted Virginia defense, but the Blue Devils still enjoyed a 1 PPP average, largely led by Roach and Championship MVP Kyle Filipowski.

John Shier inherited a Final Four point guard in Jeremy Roach, then surrounded him with the highest recruiting class in the country. (Bob Doonan / USA Today)

Speaking of Filipowski, his Scheyer story is probably the best of all. Before the 7-foot quarterback—who scored 20 points and scored his 16th double-double of the season, against the only team he’s held scoreless all year—formally committed, he recalls a set phone call with Cher. They were discussing the championships they wanted to win together, and their overlapping visions of what would be possible in Duke 2.0.

Filipovski said with a smile in the locker room, a piece of mesh knotted around the left side of his championship cap. “I just take this stuff as a little token. I felt in my gut I wanted to do this with Coach Cher.”

It’s not just players that have these stories of faith, these seemingly hyperbolic instincts to trust the first time around. When Krzyzewski first told his staff that he was retiring, several months before it was announced, associate director Chris Carwell was in the sixth-floor conference room where it happened — and right away, he voiced his support for Scheyer as a successor. “I told you he had it,” Carwell said Saturday. “He’s always had the poise, so I shouldn’t be surprised. But when you’re in this seat, it’s a different seat.” That poise, some sense of uncommon resilience, is a common refrain among people who know Sheer best. Special Assistant Mike Schrag was on Duke’s staff when Scherr was a player: “When he was 18, 19, he was mature beyond his years,” Schrag said. “It’s not too big for him.” So when Scheyer came in last season, and offered Schrage a role on the staff, Elon’s former coach chose to accept — even making the difficult decision to drop his own program in the process.

By the way, none of these things are normal. But they’re what made Scheyer a championship-winning guard under Krzyzewski, then an accomplished recruit, and now, captain of one of America’s most important basketball teams.

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“All I can say is, ever since I was young—a real young man speaking—I thought I was going to make it,” Shire said. “My team was going to win. She didn’t always win, but she found a way on every level really. Whether it was unrealistic or not, that’s how it felt.”

That inner spirit is why, despite Duke’s rocky start to the season, Cher has stayed on the track. With injuries to Lively, Roach, and fellow recruit Dariq Whitehead, players have been bouncing in and out of the lineup, and the longtime assistant hasn’t wavered in confidence that it will all come together. Understandably, some might call that naive. Dangerously optimistic, or even delusional.

But as Scheyer’s parents always knew, that mindset isn’t an option. He’s just who Duke’s trainer is, and always will be.

“He was always a ‘no excuses’ person,” said his mother, Lori.

Jim adds, “And he always reacted to adversity, and he used that as a way to grow.”

Scheyer brought back a four-caliber final guard in roach and added the No. 1 recruiting class in the country this summer. Let’s not forget: it was his players who created all this, the victories, the trophy and the hot track he left in their wake. Finally, a team of top 10 talent plays like this, slamming the gas at just the right moment.

However, Cher has led them there. Through explosion losses, through “things considered closed.”

In less than a year in the making, he’s laid out the show’s personality, letting untainted beliefs seep into every crevice.

Now, where does Duke go next? The NCAA Tournament is notoriously fickle, the beauty of it being the fact that any team can go down at any time. (Just ask some of the highly ranked Duke teams Scheyer has worked on previously, resulting in an unexpectedly early exit from the category.)

But whatever comes next doesn’t detract from what Cher has already done. He assumed stable ownership of something that would always, in some way, be owned by someone else—and he did so almost immediately. So, get a taste of it — just like Scheer’s parents and his wife, Marcel, were at the Greensboro Coliseum. “Someone take a picture,” Marcel said, wanting to commemorate this moment as vividly as possible. By the time Shire climbed a ladder under the grate, it was 10:58 p.m., a 20-minute celebration that showed no signs of stopping.

Then, he too jumped into a frenzy, posing with the entire Scheyer clan after their first feat. Plan for further follow-up. But this will always be the first.

“He’s been building this program for a long time. He’s going to be here for a long time,” Schrag said. “I think the foundation will be built no matter what happens with this group — but it’s really fun to see it kind of click now.”

(Top photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Inmaculada Fuertes
Inmaculada Fuertes

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