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‘Everything we have and more’: Duke men’s basketball’s freshman class looks to make history in year of firsts

<p>Duke's roster features the top-ranked freshman class in college basketball.</p>

Duke's roster features the top-ranked freshman class in college basketball.

Those familiar with Ancient Greek mythology likely know the tale of Atlas—beyond the edges of the observable world stands a titan eternally tasked to hold the globe steady on his broad shoulders. 

In a similar way, college basketball’s five blue blood programs—Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina and Duke—are Atlas, and the yearly pressure and attention piled upon them because of their past successes are his proverbial globe.

In recent years, that weight has increasingly fallen on freshman shoulders.

One-and-done players have dominated college hoops for more than a decade now, ever since an Anthony Davis-led Kentucky blasted itself to a runaway national title triumph in 2012. The Jayhawks, Tar Heels and Bruins have followed suit to a smaller extent, but the Blue Devils have eagerly and wholly adopted the philosophy, employing it to a monumental effect. 

NBA first-round selections Kyrie Irving, Jabari Parker, Jayson Tatum, Marvin Bagley III, Zion Williamson and Paolo Banchero jog recent memory, but for a program with perennial aspirations of winning the Big Dance, Duke sure has relied a whole lot on fresh faces to do so.

Much of that has to do with four-year starter, nine-year assistant and current head coach Jon Scheyer. The 35-year-old is the youngest Power Five head coach and ushers in yet another top-ranked recruiting class for his first year at the post, and his fifth since he joined the staff in 2013. In fact, the Blue Devils have yet to sit outside the top three in recruiting since his appointment.

That begs the question: why? And for this year’s top-ranked class, what inspired their commitment to be a part of Scheyer’s historic season of firsts?

‘This is his time’

As a four-year player with the Blue Devils and trusted confidant of former head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Scheyer has long been known for his tactful communication skills on and off the hardwood. As a point guard, this helped spearhead Duke’s 2010 run for its fourth national title, and as a coach, it has allowed him to bring star upon star to Cameron Indoor Stadium’s hallowed halls.

That is certainly the case with this year’s class.

Originally, Scheyer’s 2022-23 crop featured six players. Four of those—Dereck Lively II, Dariq Whitehead, Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell—featured in ESPN’s top 30 and three (Lively, Whitehead and Mitchell) performed in the 2022 McDonald’s All-American Game. In that game, Mitchell led both teams in scoring while Whitehead earned the game’s MVP award. Four-star guard Jaden Schutt—a well-known sharpshooter—and three-star center Christian Reeves complete the class. Five-star 2023 guard Tyrese Proctor then reclassified for 2022 in June, adding a seventh player to the already stacked group.

Throughout the recruiting process, Scheyer struck early and often to nab the guys he wanted. He helped bring Lively, Whitehead and Mitchell to 2021’s Countdown to Craziness, where they stood in the student section and got their first glimpse of Duke’s legendary home crowd.

On a more micro level, Scheyer made an effort to connect with his potential pupils beyond just basketball, even when he didn’t know that the head coach job was going to soon be his.

“He felt really comfortable with Jon [Scheyer] very early on,” Filipowski’s high school coach, Michael Mannix, told The Chronicle. “I think Kyle also appreciated that Jon was watching him a little bit from afar before they got to know each other over the phone.”

“When I ended up sending some film to Jon and he checked it out, a couple months after that, he was on the phone with the family,” Mannix added. “I think that gave him a lot of confidence that they really understood and had a really good feel for who Kyle was as a player.”

It’s a sentiment echoed loud and clear by the whole class, not just Filipowski.

“During recruitment, it was really just a relationship I started to build with coach Scheyer,” Lively said at the team’s preseason media day. “Being able to know I could put my trust into someone that is really betting on me, I’m just looking for the same benefit from him.”

“He really does mean everything he says and he’s gonna tell you the truth, anything, if it’s good or bad,” Whitehead added.

Evidently, hands-on, honest and clear feedback are staple pieces of Scheyer’s coaching philosophy and those of his assistants. Practice is divided into three distinct pieces with three individual coaches: Amile Jefferson works with the bigs, Jai Lucas with the guards and Chris Carrawell with the wings. They are loud, they are honest and they are heavily involved. From the phone to the floor, it’s about the players first and about giving each the same level of attention that drew them to Duke in the first place.

Given this class and the eight that preceded it, it appears an attractive philosophy.

‘Something you always dream of’

In August, Tatum, Banchero, Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett, all key cogs in past Blue Devil machines, came back to Durham to work out in preparation for the upcoming NBA season. Recently, ESPN commentator and former Duke center Jay Bilas gave a talk to the team about competing in the last five minutes of close games. Stretching back to April, 96 former players flocked to witness Krzyzewski’s last game at Cameron Indoor. The program markets the longstanding connection past players and coaches have with the school eloquently and succinctly: The Brotherhood.

“The Brotherhood is real,” Jefferson said. “We not only say it, but our guys show it every day … I say this all the time, no matter if you’re here for nine months, four years, five years, six years: this place is forever.”

The unique connection Duke has with its past players no doubt plays into the maintenance of its culture despite the annual departure of top talent to the NBA. The other unique element that keeps the connection between student, athlete and school strong is the screaming bunch of sleepless students occupying the rickety wooden benches of Section 17.

With a home slate that features a rematch with Big Ten juggernaut Ohio State and an early February home date with preseason No. 1 North Carolina, Duke will need its famed fanbase in its corner every step of the way. 

“It’s like no other,” Schutt said of the student section. “There’s just a lot of energy to play off of and I just can’t wait for home games and just to feed off that energy.”

“Just having the fan base and atmosphere, that definitely did play into my decision a little bit,” Filipowski added.

With the 2022-23 season officially upon us, the stage these freshmen once watched has become the stage they now set, and the mythical rapture of the Cameron Crazies is now a legend these seven newcomers ascribe to, feed on and fire up.

According to Mitchell, that opportunity is “something you always dream of.”

‘One vision’

Fresh off of a Final Four appearance and ACC regular-season title, Duke is positioned to defend its crown against the onslaught of its conference rivals, including Hubert Davis’ marauding Tar Heels and Tony Bennett’s revitalized Virginia. Under a new head coach, no less, the pressure these Blue Devils face to maintain their lofty standards is, to harken back to the earlier analogy, like Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Nonetheless, Scheyer and his staff have proven that this is a challenge they welcome. A change in head coach has not stopped Duke from assembling another top-ranked and broadly talented recruiting class. It certainly has not stopped its ambition for a sixth national title—a trophy that would level it with North Carolina—or the insatiable hunger the Cameron Crazies have for endless success on the basketball court.

“We all genuinely have one goal and one vision, which is winning the national championship,” Whitehead said.

For the Blue Devils to realize that goal—that vision—this inaugural group of freshmen must once again assume the burden of expectation that comes with a five-time national championship-winning program undergoing its most significant change since 1980.

Given their attitudes, given their coach, given their fans, however, it can hardly be called a foolish pursuit.

“It’s gonna take a lot of heart, a lot of grit, a lot of time, sweat, blood and tears,” Lively said. “It’s gonna take everything we have and more.”

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.


Andrew Long | Blue Zone editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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