In the past decade or so, college basketball has undergone a seismic shift. As NBA-bound freshmen—the proverbial “one-and-dones”—increasingly bear the burden of teams’ success, the days of four-year forces like Christian Laettner and Tim Duncan sink farther below the horizon.
Still, at Duke, the role of the veteran playmaker is a coveted one. Most recently, Wendell Moore Jr. took up the mantle, following in the footsteps of Nolan Smith, Quinn Cook, Grayson Allen and others.
This year, it is junior point guard Jeremy Roach’s turn to carry that torch. However, unlike those who have come before him, Roach is facing a journey through the complete unknown.
Since the end of last season, former head coach Mike Krzyzewski retired, Smith, an assistant coach, left for Louisville, three veterans transferred out and five of the team’s top six players were drafted into the NBA. This sort of change in the program hasn’t been seen in four decades, and Roach is the thread connecting a bygone era of Duke to a dawning one.
It’s a heavy weight to shoulder, and it’s still unclear how it will all shake out; for the Blue Devils, there are really no expectations. But for Roach, there is a clear expectation: Be the undisputed leader of a Blue Blood team.
“We expect a lot of things from him this year,” sophomore guard Jaylen Blakes, the only other returner who saw the court last season, said at the team’s media day in September. “Because he’s a great player, great person, a great leader.”
At the same event, cameras and microphones shoved in his face, Roach wore a bashful smile, unwavering in his confidence, even at the young age of 20—now 21. Through all the uncertainty around the program, there is one thing everyone, including Roach, seems to agree on—there is no one better suited to meet these expectations.
“I’ve been here for two years. I’ve been through the rough times, I’ve been through the good times, so I know the ins and outs of the Duke program. I’m ready for this,” he said.
“This is my team, for sure.”
‘The entire summer’
On Oct. 7, Duke announced that Roach would be the sole captain of the team, making him just the seventh solo captain since 1980, when Krzyzewski took over the program. The Leesburg, Va., native joins the likes of Tommy Amaker, Trajan Langdon and Allen in taking on such a role, and by all accounts has hit the ground running.
“He’s very much embraced it,” graduate transfer Kale Catchings said.
For Roach, that has meant preparing to lead the team since its elimination from the 2022 NCAA tournament. Though those paying attention knew of Roach’s on-court prowess much earlier, he rose to national prominence during Duke’s latest run to the Final Four, during which he averaged 11.8 points and 3.0 assists per game en route to a spot on the NCAA West Region All-Tournament Team. However, unlike his fellow star Blue Devils, Roach elected to stay in Durham another year instead of entering the NBA Draft, and as early as May, Scheyer hinted at him being next in line for the captaincy.
“I already kind of knew I had a big leadership role coming in early in the summer, but being named captain—it’s an honor. It’s an unreal moment. You grow up watching Duke play, and to be in this position of being captain, it’s an amazing feeling,” Roach said at ACC Tipoff in October.
Roach said former Blue Devils texted him to congratulate him, but the most in-depth conversation was a pep talk with Cook at K Academy about what it means to be the guy at the top. This year, arguably the most important part of Roach’s job description, not only as captain but as the only returning starter, is working with Duke’s freshmen so they gel on and off the court. According to the freshmen themselves, he has done that. Every one of them commented on his leadership at some point during media day, and his effort with them started long before he officially received his title.
“He’s been great the entire summer, from the first day all the way to now,” five-star freshman forward Dariq Whitehead said at media day. “Just seeing how he came in here and took a bunch of young guys and he’s leading us. The way he is, I feel like he’s gonna definitely turn a lot of heads this year.”
“Jeremy has been great. Since day one I got here he’s helped me on and off the court, just giving me little pointers here and there on stuff that I can do,” said Tyrese Proctor, the freshman phenom from Australia who will likely start alongside Roach in the backcourt. “In practice, just telling me what he sees, what other people might see, and just helping me out on the call, whether it’s defense, offense, whatever it is. He’s just always talking in my ear.”
‘If I’m not talking, who else?’
That voice hasn’t always been easy for Roach to access, though.
“Roach has always been a guy who led by example. He’s gonna work. He’s not going to talk—I’m talking about his first two years,” associate head coach Chris Carrawell said at media day. “This year, he’s adding the talking. You can see him visibly like talking to guys on the side, being a voice at a practice, and that’s going to help. Because when one of your best players is a guy who can lead by example, but also vocally, I think that helps the team.”
In an interview with The Chronicle, Glenn Farello, Roach’s high school coach at St. Paul VI, pointed out that today’s point guards face a steeper learning curve in becoming that loud floor general because of how young they start and how structured their journey into basketball is.
“It used to be, when you were younger, you had a lot of opportunities to be a voice within a practice, within a pickup game, when you guys are just having open runs, whatever it may be,” he said. “Nowadays, these kids are in jerseys at the age of six, right? [There are] parents, coaches, officials, and so they don’t have a chance to really develop their voice at times.”
For Roach, who Farello described as a “laidback, fun-loving kid” by nature, that curve has perhaps even been steeper, but just as he understands what his role is, Roach understands how he has to embody it.
“[Being vocal] is definitely not natural to me. I’m kind of like a to-myself guy,” he said at ACC Tipoff. “But I mean, with the team we have now, the guys we brought on, we have, what is it, 11 new guys? So I mean, I have to be vocal. If I’m not talking, who else is gonna be out there talking?”
In all fairness, Roach doesn’t have to shoulder the burden alone, and he said as much at ACC Tipoff.
“I love that responsibility to be ‘that guy’, and I’m not doing it alone. I’ve got great coaches with me. … And even the grad transfers.”
This season’s large group of graduate transfers, aside from filling in crucial on-court roles, also brings a veteran presence. But even they have had to adjust to the grind of Duke, and Catchings said that Roach has been instrumental to “bridging the gap” between the transfers and the young guys.
Roach also has had to work even closer with the coaching staff, especially as it has taken on a completely new look.
“We have a great relationship, but he’s figuring out what I’m like as a head coach and the things that I’m looking for him to do. Hopefully that means it can be exciting, because it’s not like you’re just doing the same thing,” Scheyer said at media day.
The root of that collaboration, though, comes from a mutual love and respect for both each other and the team.
“He’s gonna be our guard, and I’d put him up against any guard in the country,” Scheyer said.
“It’s great that I know that my head coach has my back and has all the confidence in the world for me to go up against anybody,” Roach echoed.
With that, though, comes a commitment: “[Scheyer’s] the head coach, but…I’m an extension of the head coach.”
Farello noted a similar relationship between Roach and himself back in Roach’s high school days, especially during the season he lost to an ACL tear.
“During that junior year, he spent a lot of time with his teammates and became like an assistant coach. He was in our huddles, he was in conversations. He would not just wait out the year and worry about his own recovery,” Farello said.
In his interview with The Chronicle, Farello told a story. When Roach was diagnosed with an ACL injury, meaning he’d have to sit out the season, it fell on Farello to announce the news to the team ahead of their season-opening scrimmage.
“I’ve never seen a locker room like this. All the players, even a couple of the coaches, started crying,” Farello said. “I was talking to [Roach] on the phone—he got the results, and he called me to tell me about it—and he said, ‘Okay, Coach. I’ll see you in about 20 minutes.’
“I was like, ‘What? You don’t need to come to the scrimmage. Go home, and take it all in.’ And he’s like, ‘No, Coach. I’m gonna be there for my teammates. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.’
“Just the look on all my players’ faces, when I told them—seriously, tears streaming down their faces; they were very upset for their teammate because they love him so much—and I’m like, ‘You’ll be able to tell him yourself in about 20 minutes how much he means to you.’ And they’re all like, ‘He’s coming to the scrimmage right now?’’’
Nothing has changed on that front since Roach got to Duke. On March 11, after the Blue Devils had advanced to the ACC title game and just weeks before Roach would write his name in the basketball history books, Krzyzewski spoke on his growth.
“Jeremy, I think, just keeps evolving. … It’s more of a natural growth, too. And I credit these guys because they really love one another, they like one another. … They’re not envious of one another, and so they have fertile soil to grow,” he said.
Meanwhile, Farello, who keeps in contact with all his former players, including Roach, and watches their college games, said, “Jeremy Roach loves Duke. He absolutely just loves it. He was so excited last year to be able to help the team make it to the Final Four. He’s excited to be back. He really just loves being part of Duke basketball and everything that goes with it.”
He loves the atmosphere at Cameron Indoor Stadium, he loves seeing the fans lined up for the North Carolina game, he loves getting to know other Duke students and he loves his team.
After taking the court for the first time this season at Countdown to Craziness, Roach simply said, “You gotta love it.”
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.