'The competition was ridiculous': An oral history of Jon Scheyer's playing days in the Tobacco Road rivalry

<p>Jon Scheyer, once a star himself in the Duke-UNC saga, shoots over Tar Heel guard Marcus Ginyard in his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.</p>

Jon Scheyer, once a star himself in the Duke-UNC saga, shoots over Tar Heel guard Marcus Ginyard in his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

On Saturday, Duke and North Carolina need a win for similar reasons: To keep pace in the battle for a double bye in the ACC tournament, and to add to their respective NCAA tournament resumes.

But for the Blue Devils, offsetting the Tar Heels’ recent mojo in the series might be even more essential. After all, North Carolina not only won in the final home game for Mike Krzyzewski last March, it ended his career (and the thrilling Duke postseason run) in the Final Four in New Orleans last April. Plus, of the last five meetings between the two programs, last season’s commanding win in Chapel Hill represents the Blue Devils’ only victory. 

The rivalry has not been quite this lopsided, in fact, since the mid-to-late 2000s, when the Tar Heels won six of seven against Duke—including four straight in Cameron Indoor Stadium, a feat only matched by Tim Duncan and Wake Forest in the 1990s. During those few years, North Carolina reached two Final Fours and won a national title in 2009, while Duke could only reach the Sweet 16 once during that span. But Krzyzewski would eventually capture his fourth national title in 2010, as the core of Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith made their mark. 

With Scheyer coaching in his first Duke-North Carolina game this weekend, a look back at his playing career, in the context of the rivalry, felt appropriate. The Chronicle spoke with former Duke players, college basketball analysts and a former staff member on those few years, and what they had to say (edited for length and clarity) is below. Here is an oral history of a fascinating time in Duke-North Carolina lore.

March 4, 2006

No. 15 North Carolina 83, No. 1 Duke 76

A stunner. On Senior Night for Duke greats JJ Redick and Shelden Williams, the Tar Heels played spoiler. The spring prior, North Carolina won its fourth national title, and first under Roy Williams, who returned to Chapel Hill in April 2003 after a decade-plus at Kansas. In the wake of that title, North Carolina lost its top seven scorers to the pros, but help was on the way. Williams brought in one of the top freshman classes in the country, featuring four-stars Bobby Frasor, Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard. And Tyler Hansbrough.

In his first trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium, Hansbrough (27 points, 10 rebounds) helped the Tar Heels seize control midway through the second half. Add in a cold-as-ice night from Redick (5-of-21 from the field), and North Carolina snagged its first win in Cameron Indoor since 2001.

It was a gut punch for Duke, and an early sign of what Hansbrough brought to the table.

Greg Paulus, former Duke point guard from 2005-09: It was emotional, and I know how much we wanted to send those seniors out [with a win].

Seth Davis, Trinity ‘92 and CBS Sports college basketball analyst: I remember seeing [Hansbrough] at the Peach Jam, and he had a big reputation and I wanted to watch him play. And I saw his first game, and I said, “Is this what everyone’s like making a big fuss about? Like, I don’t get it?” And then I watched him play a second game, and I’m like, “I mean, he’s pretty good, yeah maybe a little better than I thought but I don’t understand why everyone’s talking about, like he’s so great.” The third or fourth game, I’m like, “Alright, I got it.” 

Chris Spatola, former Duke director of basketball operations: In my five years there, there was no player who consumed one of our scouting reports more than Tyler Hansbrough. He was the toughest guy, in my estimation, and you can ask the other guys, but in my estimation, he was the toughest guy to prepare for. 

Jay Bilas, former Duke forward and ESPN analyst: He’s one of the relative few players where you could use the word relentless, and it applied. He was truly a relentless player. But I saw that in him in high school, where you go, “Okay, they’re going to the Final Four with this guy.”

Davis: It was the way, when I’m talking about playing hard, but he played consistently hard. I mean, even in high school, it was just like, he played so hard, every possession, that he just wore people out with his level of concentration.

February 7, 2007

No. 5 North Carolina 79, No. 16 Duke 73

With Redick and Williams off to the pros, a new era was underway in Durham. A four-man freshman class consisting of Scheyer, forwards Gerald Henderson Jr. and Lance Thomas and center Brian Zoubek entered the picture. 

In his Duke-North Carolina debut, Scheyer showed just how much fight he had in him, dropping 26 points in 38 minutes, including four triples. The Blue Devils came up short, but their freshman guard had arrived.

Bilas: Jon may be the most underrated superstar that Duke’s had. He was a fabulous player, and had four just fantastic years where he was an outstanding all-around player. At 6-5 or so, he could handle it, he could pass it, he was an excellent 3-point shooter.

Spatola: There’s no player I’ve ever been around in my career who is a better winner than Jon. And I don’t mean that sort of vaguely, like the dude figured out how to win. And I think you know, he was a good player, he was not the most gifted, he was certainly not the most gifted athlete. But Jon Scheyer figured out how to win, like he was going to figure out how to win in practice, he was going to figure out how to win games.

Davis: He had a very cerebral approach to the game, he just had a consistent level of effort, he had a real toughness about him, it was a competitive [approach]. He was locked in, he wasn’t gonna give you like a 3-for-13 from three type of game. If he wasn’t making threes, he found other ways to beat you.

Paulus: He’s so cerebral … you can see him making those coach-type plays. He had such a feel for those types of moments.

February 6, 2008

No. 2 Duke 89, No. 3 North Carolina 78

Going into this one, Duke had lost three straight to the Tar Heels. However, 2007-08 represented a rebound year for the program, as the Blue Devils ended 13-3 in the ACC and were a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance (before losing to West Virginia in the second round). 

Part of that rebound was a long-awaited win in Chapel Hill, the first double-digit road victory for Duke in the series since 2002. Thanks to 13 triples and six double-figure scorers—including Scheyer, who had 17 off the bench—Duke proved that, with the core of Scheyer, Henderson, Thomas and freshmen Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, it could hold its own against the Tar Heels. 

Paulus: I remember us sharing the ball and shooting the ball really well.

Spatola: There were two times where we beat them, and happened to beat them over there, it could have been at our place, but we beat them over there, and I was like, “Oh, my God, like, how in the world did we do this?” Because I felt going into the game that they were much better than us. And that was one of those years and then the other was 2012, the year Austin [Rivers] hit that shot.

Paulus: We grew up together. When those guys came in as freshmen, we had one of the youngest teams in the country at that point. You’re learning together, you’re working together, you’re growing together.

Spatola: I vaguely remember Jon having a night, and it was very typical Jon. It was just kind of who he was. But I do remember that being a year that I didn’t think we were gonna be able to win, certainly over there. 

Paulus: You try to work hard enough to be in that game and be in those moments.

Spatola: When you’re going over there, there’s nothing extraneous. Families didn’t travel over there, we were a very limited travel party, we were in our own little camp and the home team had a lot to deal with. The second game of the year, College Gameday was usually there, there was a lot of home distraction that, when you went on the road, you could kind of circle the wagons and then use their crowd as a little bit of a motivating factor.

Bilas: [Scheyer was] just a fantastic player that I don’t think has gotten near the credit he deserves for being one of the all-time greats at Duke. There have been so many kind of NBA lottery picks that have gone to Duke that sometimes people forget a guy like Scheyer, not forget, but they don’t give the same kind of credit to a guy like Scheyer, who was a fabulous player in every regard.

Spatola: Winning over there was as good as it gets, winning over there had its own little special feeling, and I’m sure they feel the same way. Winning in Chapel Hill was different than winning anywhere else.

February 11, 2009

No. 3 North Carolina 101, No. 5 Duke 87

Simply put, these Tar Heels were loaded and cruised to a national championship by virtue of six double-digit wins in the NCAA tournament, including an emphatic win on Championship Monday against Michigan State.

In North Carolina’s fourth-straight win in Cameron Indoor, Hansbrough, the defending consensus national player of the year, had a modest evening (by his lofty standards) with 17 points and six rebounds. But Lawson, with 25 points on 8-of-11 from the field, lifted the Tar Heels over the top. Despite a 52-44 lead at intermission, Duke could not keep pace down the stretch, and Lawson was why.

Bilas: Ty Lawson was as fast with the ball as any point guard I can remember in my time in the game. 

Davis: I’m sitting on press row. Ty Lawson had an unbelievable game, totally won the game for the Tar Heels. As the buzzer sounded, I’m sitting on press row, he’s five feet from me, he turns to the crowd to like nod at the crowd, and they were like, booing him or whatever. And he goes, “Yeah, f--- you.”

Paulus: Whenever you play North Carolina, one of the first things that you think about is how quickly they push the ball up the court, and Ty was a dynamic point guard that really put a lot of pressure on defenses. 

Bilas: They were an offensive juggernaut, and they scored 90 points falling out of bed every morning, with Hansbrough being the best player, but they also had Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson, Danny Green. They had a bunch of pros on that team, but they played at a pace which was really intimidating. 

Paulus: Whether it’s a nonconference or an ACC game, we knew we were gonna get the other team’s best shot.

Spatola: So it was Hansbrough, what are you going to do with him inside? How are you going to scheme to get him off the glass? And then how are we going to deal with Ty Lawson in transition, and the finishers that they have?

Bilas: They had so many weapons, there was not going to be an off night, because absent foul trouble or an injury, they had so many players that could score. And they had no real weak area that you could attack.

March 6, 2010

No. 4 Duke 82, North Carolina 50

The script had flipped. Hansbrough, Lawson, Green and Ellington were off to the NBA, and Scheyer, Singler, Smith and company were ready to take advantage. 

Against a rebuilding Tar Heel group that sat at 16-14 going into the contest, the Blue Devils dominated from start to finish, clinching a share of the ACC regular season title. In his final game in Cameron, Scheyer racked up 20 points, seven assists and five rebounds, while Zoubek (also playing in his final home contest) reeled in 13 boards, including five on the offensive glass. The Philadelphia native’s emergence was a major reason for Duke’s eventual run to the Final Four, and subsequent national title victory against Gordon Hayward and Butler. 

Spatola: There were two games that year where I said to myself, “Man, we’re gonna have a really good shot at doing well in the tournament.” I never honestly thought we would win a national title that year, but I was like, “Man, we have a really good chance of advancing.” The first was the [Mar. 3] loss at Maryland towards the end of that season, and then the Senior Night game against Carolina.

Davis: It was very unusual for all three of those guys (Scheyer, Singler and Smith) to have a really good game in the same game. It was usually like, two of them would play really well, and one of them wouldn’t give you much, or maybe one of them will play great. I feel like the only game where all three of them were just lights out was the West Virginia game, [in] the semifinals at the Final Four.

Paulus: There were some unbelievable minds [at Duke] with Johnny Dawkins, Steve Wojciechowski, Chris Collins, Nate James, Chris Spatola, Mike Schrage, those were the coaches that I had an opportunity to learn from and still have relationships with today.

Bilas: It wasn’t the most physically gifted team that Coach K’s had, but they had so many good players with Singler and Smith and Scheyer and Zoubek and Thomas, those guys. It was a team that played extraordinarily well together and they could really offensive rebound, and they had great versatility. 

Davis: Brian Zoubek was the guy who for most of his career at Duke was kind of the butt of a lot of jokes, because he was this big, gangly player who was supposed to be really good and didn’t seem to be able to contribute much of anything. And his dramatic improvement, really, I think it was just over the second half of the season, gave that team a dimension that not many teams had.

Spatola: We were so battle-hardened. I mean, that group had been through so much, and that was kind of what typified that final season, that it wasn’t even so much about Carolina in that final game, although you wanted to obviously beat them and you wanted that senior class to go out with a bang. But it was more about “we are built for this game,” it was more about us in that final game that year.

Paulus: To see those guys with the hard work and the commitment and to see how they did it too, it’s incredible.

Bilas: When Scheyer took over at the point, it sort of jump-started the ending where they ultimately won a championship. It was really kind of a remarkable team in that regard.

Paulus: What a terrific career [Scheyer] had. Not just with his scoring, but his playmaking, being one of the leaders [when Duke won] the national championship.

Davis: Those guys kind of fed off each other and maybe deferred to each other almost too much, where if one of them got going, and the other two would, instead of saying, “Well, I’m gonna go get mine,” they would really help him get going. So, [there was] something pretty special about that team, the way those three guys worked together.

Bilas: Nolan [Smith] was a two-way player, so he could handle it like a point guard, but he was also a scoring guard, and defended at a high level. He’s such a competitor, and obviously comes from great genes, his dad Derek Smith won a national championship at Louisville and played in the NBA for a long time. I was a huge admirer of Derek Smith. ... Nolan’s one of the best people you’ve ever met. He’s evidence that you can be incredibly nice and incredibly competitive and tough at the same time. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Spatola: I think we were undefeated at home, and so that was the other element of going into that game. Obviously it was Carolina, but it was, “let’s go undefeated at home,” and Coach K had made a big deal about that, about protecting Cameron and for those seniors to not lose a game their final year in Cameron.


Of the six national titles won from 2005 until 2010, three were won by Duke and North Carolina. Clearly, the two were the premier programs in the country, ratcheting the rivalry up even further. Of the nine games contested between Senior Night in 2006 and Senior Night in 2010, both teams were ranked seven times, and both teams were ranked in the top 10 four times. 

After the battles in the 1980s and 1990s between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels under Krzyzewski and Dean Smith, the mid-to-late 2000s represented a second Golden Age for the rivalry. 

Can Scheyer and Hubert Davis usher in another memorable era?

Bilas: They were typical of the rivalry, that there may be a period of time where one team is objectively better than the other, but the competition was ridiculous. And that’s always been true of that rivalry. I just remember going into those games going, “Either team can win this, it just depends on who plays better this night.”

Paulus: Being a part of the rivalry, to me it’s the best rivalry in college basketball. The moments you watch on TV as a kid, and you see the Jeff Capel buzzer beater…

Davis: The reason why Duke and Carolina is such a great rivalry, there’s a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason is that they’re always really good. So they’re always ranked, and oftentimes top 10 and many times top five. So that always adds to it. There are a lot of rivalries. Arizona-Arizona State’s a big rivalry, New Mexico-New Mexico State’s a big rivalry, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State. Even last night, Kansas-Kansas State was a huge game, because Kansas State was finally good.

Bilas: It was a wonderful period of time for the rivalry because there’s just two amazing teams that let it rip. And thankfully, in those games, they weren’t into these 52-50 rock fights that you tend to see because of the physicality of the game now, but they were beautiful to watch.

Paulus: You knew that there was gonna be even more attention from the national media, [and] you knew you were part of something that was bigger than yourself.

Davis: Ultimately, it’s going to depend on whether or not Hubert Davis and Jon Scheyer can sustain what’s gone on before. Hubert had a rough time last year, now it finished amazing, obviously, but, what made Coach K, Coach K was the fact that he didn’t just have one run in him. He did it over a very long period of time, everybody will tell you sustained excellence is the hardest thing. So, the jury’s out on Hubert about whether he can produce that, and it’s been a rough start for Jon, he knows that better than anybody. I have full confidence in him, I think he was the absolute right choice, but at the end of the day, the quality of this rivalry is going to depend on the quality of the teams.

Paulus: You dream of having an opportunity to be a part of the best rivalry in college basketball.

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.

Max Rego profile
Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.


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