On a rainy December night in New York, Duke waltzed into Madison Square Garden for a nationally televised matchup against Iowa. The win that followed was relatively unremarkable; the Blue Devils shut down Hawkeye star Kris Murray and cruised to a 74-62 victory behind their defense.
But there was something undeniably remarkable about the calm with which Duke, with its brand new roster and first-year head coach, conducted its business under the spotlight at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
“The Garden’s special. It’s a special place, and one of my guys [team spokesperson] Mike DeGeorge told me earlier that between playing and coaching at Duke, I’ve been here 24 times,” head coach Jon Scheyer said after the win. “And I actually couldn’t believe that. We’ve been here a lot through the years, but it was a different experience walking out.”
Among the factors that helped Scheyer and the Blue Devils successfully navigate one of the nation’s tougher nonconference schedules, one punctuated that night in New York, is this underlying sense that the 35-year-old has been here, done that at nearly every turn. For the youngest head coach in the Power Five, that is not to be taken for granted.
That experience is something that makes Scheyer unique as he looks to fill some impossibly large expectations in Durham. One thing that he does have on his predecessor is the knowledge of what it’s like to lace up for the Blue Devils, having once lived through the expectations that so often come with superstar status inside Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I think it’s just a surreal feeling, right?” Scheyer said of coaching his alma mater at ACC Tipoff in October 2022, echoing a sentiment shared by Louisville head coach Kenny Payne. “The decision you make when you’re 16, 17 or 18 where you go to that school, never once did it cross my mind … I feel that responsibility, not just being the head coach to be successful, but to carry the culture forward.”
A few miles down Tobacco Road, North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis—now in his second year on the job—is in a similar position as a former Tar Heel himself. When the two teams meet Saturday evening for the first matchup since 2003 without one of Mike Krzyzewski or Davis’ predecessor Roy Williams, the once-parallel paths of Scheyer and Davis will cross at last.
When they do, the culture that Scheyer speaks of—at least that piece of it belonging to the infamous Tobacco Road rivalry—will come to a crossroads. Which way does it go next?
‘The foundation will never change’
Both Davis and Scheyer have already made their own marks on their respective programs within the infrastructure left behind for them at North Carolina and Duke.
“I think the stamp is me personally, my personality,” Davis said when asked about his personal stamp on North Carolina at ACC Tipoff. “… The foundation will never change as long as I’m here. It’s been tried and tested and proven successful in some place that I’m not going to veer or go away from. I’m just not. I believe in it. Carolina will always be and always look like Carolina. … I’m walking the same path, but I got to do it in my shoes with my own personality.”
The question of whether the crosstown rivalry will feel or be different with new leaders, though, is a fair one, considering the stability that figures like Krzyzewski, Williams and longtime Tar Heel head coach Dean Smith have brought to the sidelines over the years. Before the February 2022 installment of the rivalry, an 87-67 Duke win in Chapel Hill, those three were the only head coaches involved for more than three seasons dating back to 1980. Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty bridged the gap between Smith’s retirement in 1997 and Williams’ arrival in 2003.
Now, more than ever, the reality that the rivalry in question goes deeper than its head coaches is apparent.
Take March 5, 2022, when the unranked Tar Heels stunned No. 4 Duke, the Cameron Indoor crowd and the wider college basketball world by shredding the Blue Devils 94-81 in Krzyzewski’s final game on Coach K Court. For one celebratory, then disastrous night in Durham, everybody seemed to forget the anything-can-happen nature between the historic rivals.
One month later, the two met again for an unprecedented Final Four matchup and turned in an instant classic. The Tar Heels overcame the odds again, closing the final chapter of Krzyzewski’s storied career with an 81-77 win in New Orleans after Caleb Love, now in his junior season, buried a pivotal three in the closing minutes to send North Carolina to the title game.
The point? Even with a first-year head coach going up against the winningest head coach in the history of the sport, the Tobacco Road rivalry not only delivered, but proved its unpredictability once again.
Duke-North Carolina has become a self-sustaining rivalry, with its former standouts now roaming the sidelines. No matter the stamp these two coaches choose for their respective programs, that never-ending conflict and friction between the schools does not seem to be going anywhere.
The one thing that might threaten the gravity of Saturday’s meeting at Cameron Indoor is the fact that both teams are on the outside looking in at the AP Top 25. Both debuted inside the top 10, with the Tar Heels as the preseason No. 1 team and the Blue Devils at No. 7, but now face the prospect of the rare unranked Duke-North Carolina matchup.
With the exception of the two matchups in the COVID-19-altered 2021-22 season, there hasn’t been an unranked matchup between the two teams since well before Krzyzewski arrived at Duke in 1980.
The good news for both is that there is a recent precedent for Saturday’s matchup, along with its sequel March 4, to become an inflection point for one or both of these teams in what has been a relatively trying season on both sides of the U.S. 15-501. When the Tar Heels shocked Duke on Krzyzewski’s big night in March 2022, they not only set the table for their own unlikely Final Four run, but for the Blue Devils’ parallel romp to New Orleans as well.
North Carolina’s turnaround a year ago, in Davis’ first season, now serves as something of a blueprint for Scheyer to restore his team to its preseason expectations of contention in the ACC and NCAA tournament.
“I think there’s mutual respect,” Scheyer said of Davis at ACC Tipoff. “I have admiration for what he did last year. I mean, it’s not like you’re smooth sailing, right? They went through ups and downs, and he just stuck with it. I think that’s what—really, that’s what I plan on doing no matter what.”
Davis shared his own admiration for his Blue Devil counterpart at ACC Tipoff as well, recalling a conversation on the recruiting trail while Scheyer’s wife, Marcelle, was expecting the couple’s third child.
“Because with three children you have to play zone,” Davis said. “Somebody’s always gonna be open, so how are you handling that? Becoming head coach? So, just being able to not empathize, but kind of relate—I have three children. Coach Scheyer is a fantastic person, an unbelievable coach and he’s gonna do an unbelievable job at Duke.”
For some time now, Scheyer and Davis have been inextricably linked to one another, often to an exhausting degree, as the new faces of what may be the sporting world’s premier rivalry. On Saturday, with that very rivalry—along with Duke and North Carolina’s seasons—at a crossroads, the only thing left to do for the dueling head coaches is to follow the advice of baseball great Yogi Berra:
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest of The Chronicle's coverage here, and follow along with the full Rivalry Challenge here.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.