The future, for one night anyway, arrived sooner than Mike Krzyzewski, Jon Scheyer or anyone with Duke basketball wanted.
With only about 30 hours notice, Scheyer went from head coach-in-waiting to head coach on the job for Wednesday night’s important ACC road game at Wake Forest.
Suffering from a non-COVID virus, Krzyzewski fell ill and didn’t lead the team through practice on Tuesday afternoon, leaving his availability for the Wake Forest game in doubt. Many, Scheyer included, held out hope Duke’s Hall of Fame coach would make the trip to Winston-Salem on Wednesday.
At the same time, Scheyer prepared as if Krzyzewski wouldn’t be there by leading the team through practice. Since Scheyer had been in charge of scouting Wake Forest, he had assistant coach Nolan Smith also get up to speed quickly on the Demon Deacons so he could properly instruct the players during the game.
“Nolan Smith stepped up and crammed basically for, you know, several hours there,” Scheyer said, “just to know Wake more and their specials. You could see him yelling out their plays.”
All of this happened with Duke coming off a 76-74 loss at home to Miami on Saturday night. The Blue Devils were preparing for their first ACC road game, having squandered a 15-point, second-half lead to lose 71-66 at Ohio State in their only other true road contest this season.
Oh and the players were working their way back into shape after a late December COVID-19 outbreak postponed two games and kept them from practicing for 10 days.
For mid-January, this game at Wake Forest checked plenty of boxes that made it pivotal for the No. 8 Blue Devils.
That Duke emerged with a 76-64 win, allowing a celebratory FaceTime call with Krzyzewski in the Joel Coliseum’s visiting locker room, showed the staff cohesion Krzyzewski built that has a good chance to continuing next season when he’s retired and Scheyer is the full-time head coach.
“They all came through huge,” Duke junior and team co-captain Wendell Moore said. “They had 24 hours to kind of put together this scout. I mean, they did it perfectly. They really gave us all the information we needed on this team.”
The 74-year-old Krzyzewski decided last spring that this season would be his last. He made the decision public in early June and Duke chose the 33-year-old Scheyer, already the team’s associate head coach, as his successor.
That put Scheyer in a different position this season. Krzyzewski said he’s already had Scheyer more involved in duties normally reserved for the head coach as part of the transition.
On Tuesday, the players went through an entire practice without Krzyzewski as he stayed home convalescing from his illness. Smith, associate head coach Chris Carrawell and director of player development Amile Jefferson pulled it together.
“Coach Scheyer and the rest of the staff, they did the work,” Banchero said. “They weren’t really worried or really too flustered. They were pretty comfortable.”
Then Banchero, whose talents dictate that he’ll be in the NBA and not still at Duke next season when Scheyer is fully in charge, said the words that should ease Blue Devil fans’ worries about the future.
“They had it down,” Banchero said. “It felt like a regular practice, honestly. So it was good.”
The Blue Devils played far from a perfect game. But the first lineup adjustment of the season paid off big time as AJ Griffin, starting for the first time this season, scored a season-best 22 points.
He and Banchero (24 points) were unstoppable, at times, in half-court sets that carved up Wake Forest. Duke unleashed a 22-1 run over the final minute of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half to take control.
“Duke did an unbelievable job imposing their will on us at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half,” Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes said. “I thought they were the tougher team when the game was on the line.”
The coaching staff, and by extension the team, found itself in a tough situation without its head coach on Tuesday. That Duke persevered bodes well for the rest of this season — and beyond.
This story was originally published January 13, 2022 1:30 PM.