When the curtain lifts on a new college basketball season on Tuesday night, all eyes will be on Mike Krzyzewski, the legendary Duke men’s coach, as he leads the No. 9 Blue Devils against No. 10 Kentucky in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden.
The doubleheader, which also includes No. 3 Kansas taking on Michigan State, will be the 74-year-old Krzyzewski’s final game coaching at the Garden in his farewell tour before he retires after his 42nd season at Duke.
While it promises to be an emotional night, and season, for Coach K, as he is known, the experience will also have implications for the coach who sits next to him on the bench, Jon Scheyer.
A year from now, Scheyer, 34, will slide over to become the program’s head coach. He might as well be moving to the moon.
Scheyer was an all-American as the captain of the 2009-10 Duke team that won the program’s fourth N.C.A.A. championship, but he has not been a head coach at any level. He has served as an assistant since 2014, and in June was designated as the head coach in waiting.
Still, with Krzyzewski retiring, Scheyer has been the face of the program’s recruiting efforts since June. It was Scheyer, not Krzyzewski, who was out this summer courting the top rising juniors and seniors in the nation. And it has paid off.
Duke has the second-ranked recruiting class in the nation, according to 247Sports.com, just behind its longtime recruiting rival Kentucky. This year’s final ranking remains fluid (and is never a guarantee of success), but Scheyer has set himself up for when he takes over.
“That’s why I think there was a sense of urgency from the school to announce the next head coach and to announce the plans for Coach K where we could continue to recruit at the highest level and to bring in the big-big-time players,” Scheyer said in an interview.
On June 18, the first day college coaches could be out recruiting, Scheyer and an assistant coach, Chris Carrawell, were watching Dereck Lively II, a 7-foot-1 N.B.A. prospect from West Chester, Pa., who can block shots near the basket and drain them from beyond the 3-point line.
Though Lively was also recruited by Kentucky’s John Calipari, Michigan’s Juwan Howard, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, Memphis’s Penny Hardaway and North Carolina’s Hubert Davis, he verbally committed to Duke on Sept. 18.
“When Dereck goes to Duke, Coach Scheyer is the head coach, so why wouldn’t that head coach for my son be watching him?” Lively’s mother, Kathy Drysdale, said in a phone interview. “Coach K didn’t need to be there because he’s not going to be the coach.”
There are no real comparisons in recent memory to what Duke did with its succession plan. In June 2015, Syracuse announced that an assistant, Mike Hopkins, was the “head coach designate” and would succeed Jim Boeheim after the 2017-18 season. But more than six years later, Boeheim, who turns 77 on Nov. 17, is still the head coach at Syracuse. He has said he can coach until he is 80 or beyond. Hopkins, aware that his opportunity at Syracuse wasn’t on the horizon, left to become the head coach at Washington in 2017.
When Roy Williams retired from North Carolina on April 1 at 70, the university named his heir apparent, Davis, the new head coach four days later. Still, Davis and his staff have commitments from four class of 2022 prospects, including three four-star recruits.
Nothing has quite matched what Scheyer and his staff have accomplished on the recruiting trail so far.
On July 29, after missing out on playing at most of the prestigious Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., because he tested positive for the coronavirus, Kyle Filipowski, a highly touted 6-11 center from Wilbraham & Monson Academy in Massachusetts, became the first player to commit to Duke for the Scheyer era.
“Jon developed a strong relationship with Kyle back around April or May,” said Mike Mannix, Filipowski’s high school coach. “You can see Jon is very comfortable in his new role. He has a strong presence. He connects with players but now has a way about him that gives off the feel of leadership.”
Drysdale, Lively’s mother, said she had noticed “a slight change in how the recruiting is happening.” For example, it was Krzyzewski’s tradition to offer scholarships in person, in his office, whereas Scheyer is more flexible.
“When he truly believes in a player that’s a good fit for Duke, he’ll offer them before they get on campus,” she said.
While Scheyer and others have been recruiting, the succession plan has allowed Krzyzewski to spend more time with the last team he plans to coach.
Duke features Paolo Banchero, a 6-10 forward from Seattle who is being mentioned as a potential No. 1 pick in next year’s N.B.A. draft, and A.J. Griffin, another potential lottery pick.
“What I do for every year, it’s to be in the moment, to get to know my guys,” Krzyzewski said in October. “I feel great about my relationship with each individual player on our team. Because it wasn’t like last year, I have spent a lot of time with them, and not being on the road recruiting has been a godsend for me as far as developing those relationships.”
The Blue Devils have not played in the N.C.A.A. tournament since 2019. In 2020, the tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last season, Duke was having a bad campaign and looking shaky to make the 68-team field when it withdrew from the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament while it was in progress because a player had tested positive for the virus.
While this season’s team is motivated to send Krzyzewski off on a high note, Scheyer has continued to line up blue chip recruits who can help him win games beginning in the 2022-23 season.
Two days after Filipowski committed, Scheyer and Duke landed a second five-star recruit in Dariq Whitehead, a 6-5 wing from Newark, N.J., who plays for the prep powerhouse Montverde Academy in Florida.
In September, Scheyer landed another guard in the class of 2022, Jaden Schutt; one in the class of 2023, Caleb Foster; and then Lively.
“You come here and the Duke brotherhood ain’t going down or anything like that just because Coach K is stepping down,” Lively said in June of Duke’s message. “He’s still going to be there, the development is still going to be there and just the overall feeling of being a Duke athlete is still going to be there.”