The biggest challenge Jon Scheyer faces as Coach K's presumptive replacement at Duke

·6-min read

When looking back at the gilded career of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, there’s myriad accomplishments to ponder. He has won 1,170 games, five national titles and taken Duke to 12 Final Fours.

Perhaps more than anything, he took a well-regarded basketball program and turned it into a defiant and relentless winner. Duke was a very good program prior to Krzyzewski taking over in 1980. He turned it into a teeming, larger-than-life brand, elevating Cameron Indoor into one of the sport’s hallowed grounds and Duke as a university into the highest echelons of academia.

And that’s perhaps the most compelling challenge facing Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer as he prepares to take over for Coach K after his last-call tour in 2021-22. (Sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports that this is the plan.) 

Can Scheyer, a 33-year-old assistant coach, keep Duke near the level of accomplishment that had become a shoulder-shrug expectation? Can he keep Duke consistently in the NCAA tournament, always in the ACC conversation and occasionally in the Final Four?

It’d be foolish to ask Scheyer to duplicate Coach K’s accomplishments and become the best coach of the next generation. The better question will be whether Scheyer can keep Duke near the rare air where Coach K elevated it. Can this chapter of Duke basketball be a relative facsimile of the looming force that Krzyzewski helped create?

Asking Jon Scheyer to duplicate Coach K's historic success is probably too much. But now that Duke's been built into a powerhouse, he has to at least keep the program in national contention. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Asking Jon Scheyer to duplicate Coach K's historic success is probably too much. But now that Duke is a powerhouse, he has to at least keep the program in national contention. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

Here’s the reality about what Scheyer is facing: He wasn’t even born when Coach K took over at Duke. 

Scheyer is 33 and arrived on earth after Krzyzewski led Duke to his first Final Four. This is all much bigger than Scheyer, as he grew up in an era when Duke appearing in the postseason and being nationally ranked was as expected as sun in San Diego and snow in Syracuse. Part of the unknown with Scheyer is that Krzyzewki’s shadow casts so far in recruiting, coaching and running a program that no one is entirely sure how good of a coach he really is.

There was certainly Duke basketball before Krzyzewski — eight NCAA tournament appearances and four Final Fours — but it didn’t resemble anything close to the juggernaut it became. And maintaining that level is the biggest challenge for Scheyer. Did Duke enable Krzyzewski, or Krzyzewski enable Duke’s rise to the elite? Some of those answers will become more obvious in the next decade.

Duke is an elite academic institution in a basketball-mad area with distinguished pedigree and the highest-end support and facilities. There’s plenty of reasons to win. But with all that’s in place, recreating the maestro’s magic will be a significant and daunting task.

The recruiting class that Krzyzewski landed for his last call — highlighted by No. 2 player Paolo Banchero, No. 13 A.J. Griffin and No. 20 Trevor Keels — will put Duke back in the rare air we’re accustomed to after the Blue Devils missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995 this past season. The swan song for Krzyzewski should be robust.

In many ways, it’s smart for new athletic director Nina King to name Scheyer the next head coach now and give him a season to pitch recruits on the new era. It would erase speculation and not give high-end recruits reasons to seek other schools where they can be one-and-dones.

It allows Scheyer to find guys who want to be the face of the new Duke, his Duke. It’s a trickier pitch, considering the recruiting competition these days includes the G League, Overtime Elite and the other traditional college blue bloods. Just three of the top 20 players in the class of 2022 are committed right now, which means that there’s essentially a blank slate of elite players to whom he can deliver that pitch. Duke has been forward in marketing its program, and it will be interesting to see how a school with one of the sport’s best brands capitalizes on Name, Image and Likeness. Few have the tools to do it better than the Blue Devils.

Duke will still be Duke in many ways – gorgeous campus, rollicking environment at Cameron and indelible image. But in reality, Duke hasn't been Duke for a few years now, and that may help Scheyer.

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Duke hasn’t won a national title since 2015. None of its teams have reached the Final Four since then either, including Krzyzewski squandering the Zion Williamson-led team of 2019. Duke has backslid in recent years, as it hasn’t won an outright ACC title since 2006 or shared one since 2010. (That shared ACC title was with Maryland, to put it in context.)

So while Duke remained dominant on the recruiting trail, relevant annually and consistently in the NCAA tournament until last season, the Blue Devils haven’t exactly been titans in their own league. They’ve simply been very good, an easier standard to live up to if Scheyer’s career gets off to a rocky start. (Much like Krzyzewski’s did, not reaching the NCAA tournament his first three seasons.)

There are few athletic departments that will be as completely overhauled as Duke’s in the upcoming months. King is in her second week since being named athletic director, Scheyer will become the sport’s most intriguing figure and football coach David Cutcliffe appears in his twilight after helping pull Duke football out of the gutter. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the school ends up with three new faces in the athletic department’s three most important jobs in a single year.

Is Scheyer ready? Well, no one is really ready for this task. As the uneven careers of Jeff Capel, Chris Collins, Steve Wojciechowski and others have shown us, a Duke coaching pedigree doesn’t necessarily translate. If Scheyer gets off to a slow start, they’ll be second-guessing for Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley or a more established coach at a high-end program, like Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann.

Can the brand elevate Scheyer in reciprocal form, much like Krzyzewski spent four decades building Duke’s brand?

In many ways, that’s the tension that Scheyer has to overcome – being sure that Duke remains what we’ve expected Duke to be.

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