It was a convincing win, maybe even his team’s best to date, and it came in stark contrast to an earlier loss to the same opponent. Every Duke starter scored in double digits, the defense excelled and no one player had to do too much.
It all left head coach Jon Scheyer in a confident mood Monday morning, even 36 hours removed from the Blue Devils’ 81-65 romp Saturday against Virginia Tech and with another tough rematch, this time against N.C. State, coming up Tuesday evening. The Wolfpack shredded Duke 84-60 back in January, but to Scheyer, that was simply a past life for this team.
“Where do I begin? I think both of us are a lot different,” Scheyer said Monday, asked what had changed since that January rout in Raleigh. “But I just think our confidence. You look at, basically every aspect of how we were playing was different. … We've grown a lot since then.”
When Tuesday night rolled around and Duke dispatched N.C. State with relative ease in the second half, holding on to win 71-67 in its home finale to complete the rare undefeated season inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, it backed up its head coach’s declaration of growth one more time.
“You look at that team, they've grown so much,” Wolfpack head coach Kevin Keatts said after the game. “I remember when we played them months ago, and they played like freshmen. And you can tell that those guys have really grown up.”
Scheyer no longer needs to spell it out: Matters across the ACC are different now than they were in January, or even a few weeks ago. But as one last regular-season test looms large and the challenge of the postseason approaches, everything is about to change once again.
‘I believe in them like crazy’
Despite all the noise coming in, the first matchup between Scheyer and his North Carolina counterpart Hubert Davis lived up to its lofty expectations. Fans inside Cameron Indoor were treated to a staring contest worthy of mention among the best of the Tobacco Road rivalry. For nearly 13 minutes straight in the second half, the gap never stretched to two possessions.
That is, until junior captain Jeremy Roach turned the corner for a head-on, game-sealing layup, giving Duke a gutsy 63-57 win. It was cause for celebration in Durham: Freshman center Dereck Lively II had just completed his best game as a Blue Devil, Roach had orchestrated a strong finish and Duke had its first three-game winning streak of ACC play.
In the moment, it was hard not to feel like the Blue Devils had turned the corner for good.
“I felt, after my time playing here, that there’s two major ways to get confidence,” Scheyer said after the game. “One is preparation, right? … But two is confidence from your experiences, in actually doing it and winning. And we’ve been right there. We've had some close games, we just haven't been able to get the key stop or get the key bucket to go ahead two possessions. And tonight we did.”
Duke’s Feb. 4 win, complete with that elusive key bucket, has become somewhat of a reckoning for both teams, in hindsight. It marked the second of five losses in six games for the Tar Heels, and while it seemed as if Duke finally had the necessary confidence and a clear-cut turning point to swing off of, it was not that simple.
Forty-eight hours later, the Blue Devils were out of it within minutes at Miami on their way to an 81-59 loss. A few days after that, Duke lost 69-62 in overtime after a controversial ruling at Virginia, leaving Scheyer and the Blue Devils angry and confused. Late that night, the ACC released a statement, deeming the decision an “incorrect adjudication” on the all-important final play of regulation.
Just one week after its big win, Duke was at a new low, left angry and confused and all but eliminated from the race for a repeat ACC regular-season title.
“It’s hard for me to take lessons right now. I’m pissed for our guys,” Scheyer said on the following Monday’s ACC media call. “And I'm pissed that we were right there, and we weren't able to come away with a win. And look, I believe in them like crazy, the fact that there's so many more things we can do better and still, we have an opportunity to beat a great Virginia team.”
There was a discernible edge in Scheyer’s voice that morning, one that has apparently carried over for the Blue Devils, who have yet to lose since that fateful afternoon in Charlottesville, Va.
So while that Feb. 4 win against the Tar Heels was not quite the launching pad it seemed to be for Duke, here we are. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have both gone there and back again — a page taken out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s playbook — and enter on respective winning streaks of five and three games, setting the stage for another high-stakes matchup Saturday in Chapel Hill.
Entering Saturday’s regular-season finale, the stakes remain high. For the Tar Heels, once a championship-or-bust team as the preseason No. 1 in the AP Poll, every game is a must-win these days. A loss at home to Duke could be more than a lost opportunity for North Carolina, but the final straw that prevents Davis and company from another shot at the NCAA tournament.
For the Blue Devils, the ice is not nearly as thin — the rivalry matchup is decidedly not a make-or-break scenario. Opportunity still looms large, especially with the wind in their sails.
“I told our guys, for this game, Saturday [against North Carolina], every game moving forward, there's a lot on the line,” Scheyer said after beating N.C. State. “You're playing somebody that believes they should win, and it's gonna be a tough game.”
First, Saturday presents Duke with one final audition for the postseason. Even after the success of the past few weeks, that will be especially important in Chapel Hill — the Blue Devils may have finished 16-0 at home, but they also went 3-6 on the road in ACC play, and neutral sites await moving forward.
The real trick for Scheyer’s team will be applying what went right over the course of that flawless final homestand to an arena other than Cameron Indoor. The hostile environment of the Dean E. Smith Center, better known to most as the Dean Dome, is not a bad place to start.
Rewind a few weeks, and an abundance of positives for Duke to build on starting Saturday come to light. One important revelation, if not an obvious one, is the play of freshman forward Mark Mitchell.
After its loss at Virginia, Duke responded by surviving Notre Dame on Valentine’s Day, winning 68-64. It was not a wholly impressive win, to be blunt, but it started the Blue Devils on their current trajectory and it featured a signature moment for the often-overlooked Mitchell. With his team leading 63-62 and the shot clock turned off, the lefty buried a corner three to seal the win, setting this final phase of the regular season into motion.
After he scored 12 points Tuesday against the Wolfpack, including a timely 3-pointer in the second half to fuel a Blue Devil run, Mitchell has scored in double digits three games running for the first time in his college career.
There are bigger stories for Duke right now — another late-season renaissance for Roach, the play of Lively and fellow freshman Tyrese Proctor — but this streak might never have begun if not for Mitchell’s big shot against the Fighting Irish. And if not for his play since, Duke might not have reached this high point at all.
“At halftime, I got after him in that game [against Notre Dame],” Scheyer said in a media availability Feb. 23. “And I just told him, ‘We need you to be aggressive.’ And for him to come out the way that he did and then to finish the game with that three … thought it was great momentum for him. And then he's built from that, in the Syracuse game and then the last game against Louisville.”
Beyond that, opportunity resides for Duke in the ability to improve its postseason positioning. A top-four seed at next week’s ACC tournament remains within reach, but only with a second win Saturday at North Carolina. That scenario would give the Blue Devils an extra day of preparation before beginning the postseason in earnest.
“When we had a short prep, whether it be a one-day or back-to-back, we haven't been as good,” Scheyer said. “And you need to be … just this past Saturday and Monday [against Syracuse and Louisville], had to be good in a short prep day. And going forward, ACC tournament and NCAA tournament, God willing you're in that, and you have to be able to respond quicker.”
Duke is playing with seeding in mind, but that thought is not occupying too much headspace for Scheyer. There is an argument to be made that the Blue Devils have established themselves among the teams to beat out in Greensboro, N.C., regardless.
“Do you want a double-bye? Of course you do. If not, that's a great opportunity,” Scheyer said after the N.C. State win. “We're gonna be in a good spot. It's just a matter of where and who we're playing against.”
Above all, though, Saturday’s meeting on the opposite side of the U.S. 15-501 gives Duke a chance to play spoiler against its enemy. One year removed from a chaotic finale at Cameron Indoor in Mike Krzyzewski’s farewell, that opportunity has turned in the Blue Devils’ favor.
That fluidity is, of course, how things are in the ACC, and with this Duke team specifically. Everything has changed since these teams met in February. When the final buzzer sounds Saturday and the regular season officially gives way to March, everything will change once again.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.