April 15, 2024

Duke’s season ends with encouraging signs, big questions ahead of star-studded recruiting class’ arrival

When you don the iconic navy blue, play in front of the Cameron Crazies and follow in the footsteps of some of the sport’s all-time greats, the expectations are high. Championship-level high. Every year, no matter the names on the back of the uniform. When the name on the front reads “Duke,” moral victories are fleeting … if they exist at all. 

Jon Scheyer knows it as well as anyone. He played in 144 games for the Blue Devils and was twice a team captain. In his senior year (2010), Scheyer played the most minutes in ACC history and captained the Blue Devils to a national title.

Scheyer returned to Durham, North Carolina, in 2013 after a brief pro career. He hasn’t left since, gradually moving up the ranks. In June 2021, Mike Krzyzewski didn’t just announce he was retiring after the upcoming season, but he appointed Scheyer his successor. The man synonymous with the sport’s most recognizable program was leaving impossible shoes to fill but knew exactly who he wanted to try and fill them — an enormous honor with enormous pressure.

Duke has no reservations about Scheyer’s accomplishments. On the second page of the team’s 2023-24 media guide is a massive overlay of Scheyer smiling wide next to a headline that reads, “John Scheyer By The Numbers.” National championships and ACC championships. Recruiting numbers. All-Americans and NBA Draft.

But there were no smiles after Sunday’s loss to NC State in the Elite Eight. This wasn’t just a loss to a conference rival but an in-state rival, often the forgotten member the Duke-North Carolina-NC State “research triangle.” It came half a month after NC State stunned Duke in the Blue Devils’ ACC Tournament opener, after which Scheyer said his team didn’t have the “competitive fire you need to have in the postseason.”

There was no lack of competitive fire this time, but rather a lack of composure. Kyle Filipowski, in likely his last game with Duke, shot 3 of 12 and fouled out. Mark Mitchell fouled out. Tyrese Proctor missed all nine of his shots. Team captain Jeremy Roach needed 13 shots to score 13 points. These were the veterans expected to carry the Blue Devils. Duke’s offense was “probably the most disjointed game that we’ve had all year,” per Scheyer, and completely fell apart late. The defense was a mess throughout the second period as NC State shot a stunning 19 of 26 in the final 20 minutes of game time. 

Two years into the post-Coach K era, we’ve seen improvement from the Blue Devils and from Scheyer. Duke was ousted by Tennessee in the second round last year, falling victim to a tougher, more physical team. This year, it went to the Elite Eight, beating arguably the toughest and most physical team in the country, Houston, along the way.

The progress was obvious. The Blue Devils had a top-10 offense and a top-15 defense nationally. They shot it better and turned it over less than Scheyer’s first team. Kenpom.com ranked the Blue Devils as the 18th-best team in the country last year. This year? Seventh. And yet there’s a familiar feeling of frustration, of missed opportunities, of wondering why this year was a half-step forward rather than a full step. At every other program, a season during which a second-year coach makes the Elite Eight is a success. At Duke, it’s what Scheyer hopes is continued momentum.

“I think our program couldn’t be in a stronger place,” Scheyer said. “We’re just 20 minutes away from going to a Final Four in our second year. I don’t shy away from our expectations or what we want to do … I couldn’t be more confident in where this thing is heading and what we’re doing.”

So what, exactly, will Duke be doing in Scheyer’s much-anticipated third year? Here’s what the next iteration of the Blue Devils will look like:

Who’s staying, and who’s leaving?

It’s a fascinating discussion every year in Durham. Filipowski, a sophomore, and freshman star Jared McCain are both in the top 20 of CBS Sports’ 2024 NBA Draft Prospect Rankings and seem on their way out. Protctor is 40th.

While Roach technically has the COVID-19 extra year of eligibility if he wants it, the senior seems unlikely to return. He has spoken at length about his time at Duke, and he participated in Senior Night. Sixth-year center Ryan Young has exhausted his eligibility.

With McCain and Roach likely moving on and Proctor potentially doing so as well, the backcourt will be an area of focus. Caleb Foster missed the end of the season with an ankle injury, but the No. 23 overall prospect in the 2023 class showed promising flashes, shooting over 40% from 3. That’s a solid start, but Duke will need more backcourt depth, especially should Proctor not return.

In the frontcourt, uber-athletic Sean Stewart also showed flashes in his freshman campaign. The final member of Duke’s second-ranked 2023 recruiting class was TJ Power, a highly regarded shooter who saw inconsistent minutes.

Scheyer was loath to discuss offseason plans, but it is worth noting the Blue Devils had zero major contributors who either arrived or departed via the transfer portal last season, an extreme rarity. That could change this offseason, though, because …

Loaded recruiting class incoming

Duke has an all-time great 2024 recruiting class coming in, led by an all-time great recruit: Cooper Flagg — who earned a “perfect” 100 rating from 247Sports — leads a massive six-player class.

  • Cooper Flagg (No. 1 overall, No. 1 SF)
  • Khaman Maluach (No. 3 overall, No. 1 C)
  • Isaiah Evans (No. 12 overall, No. 3 SF)
  • Kon Knueppel (No. 17 overall, No. 5 SF)
  • Patrick Ngongba II (No. 18 overall, No. 5 C)
  • Darren Harris (No. 51 overall, No. 14 SF)

It’s not just massive in the number of players but the size of them. The 6-foot-5 Knueppel is the shortest. The Blue Devils figure to be one of the nation’s most imposing groups next year, unlike this year.

It’s worth noting, though, that there are no point guards listed in that group, while there’s a massive influx of wings. That makes the presence and development of Foster a massive storyline. Whether Duke adds to the backcourt is a big question, too. In the (quite) recent history of the transfer portal becoming a roster-defining factor, the Blue Devils have added wings and bigs. That seems ripe for change. Steady, experienced guard play is in short supply and massive demand. Scheyer could offer an extremely attractive opportunity to a proven guard looking to play at a premier program, surrounded by premier talent.

Glass half-full or half-empty?

When assessing Duke under Scheyer, the optimism lies in the stats outlined above, in reaching the second weekend of the tournament and in the fact that Scheyer did all of that without the all-world, future lottery-pick talent that Duke teams under Krzyzewski had. Unless Filipowski or McCain take a huge pre-draft leap, Duke figures to go consecutive seasons without a top-10 NBA Draft pick for just the second time since 2010. The other instance was 2020 and 2021; the 2021 team didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament.

While no one will ever say Duke lacked talent this year, it didn’t have a star who consistently took over games. Filipowski showed it in flashes, and McCain did, too. But neither were an elite all-around force. A Zion Williamson. A Paolo Banchero. A Marvin Bagley III. A Jayson Tatum. A Brandon Ingram. The list goes on and on.

That won’t be the case next season. Flagg is the real deal. Evans “has as much long-term upside as any wing in the class,” according to 247Sports director of scouting Adam Finkelstein. Knueppel is a deadeye shooter, and Maluach and Ngongba will form an impressive front line. Scheyer will have more pure talent at his disposal than ever before, and his roster construction will change. A year after having iffy wing production, he’ll have almost too many options. It’ll be his job to sort through it all, mixing and matching and trying to keep everyone happy. But he’ll have much more lineup versatility, especially if he can fill out the backcourt.

The pessimist, of course, won’t care too much for advanced numbers. Duke finished 27-9 for the second straight year despite having a stronger-than-normal returning group and the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class. The Blue Devils went an abysmal 2-5 against its in-state ACC rivals, including a sweep by North Carolina. They had two chances to end NC State’s season and whiffed on both. They split with Wake Forest. They also lost to Pittsburgh at home for the first time since 1979. They lost their premier nonconference home game against Arizona.

They challenged for a split of the ACC regular-season title but fell short by losing to North Carolina in the finale. They didn’t challenge for either the ACC Tournament title (which they won in Scheyer’s first year) or the NCAA Tournament title. All this from a team that was supposed to be older, wiser and better.

The fair outlook likely lies somewhere in between. There’s no denying the progress; making an Elite Eight is tangible evidence. There’s also no denying that going into his third year, Scheyer will face more pressure for those true breakthrough wins in big moments. He swept a downtrodden North Carolina team last year and got swept by them this year, yes, but the Blue Devils were right there for a Final Four berth, something Scheyer couldn’t say after his debut season.

Great things take time, even at Duke. Krzyzewski didn’t make the NCAA Tournament until his fourth year in Durham and didn’t win a tournament game until his fifth. Scheyer, of course, stepped into a much stronger situation, but he’s ahead of schedule in that regard. Duke’s championship-building schedule, though, is unlike anyone else’s. If Year 1 for Scheyer was an adjustment period and Year 2 was a half-step forward, Year 3 — with an NBA-ready roster and a coach now fully settled in — will be the big one.

“We have to digest this loss first, which will take some time,” Scheyer said. “Like we’ve experienced this postseason, some of the beauty of the tournament, and this is the heartbreak of it. We have to figure out why.”