GREENSBORO – The vision, plan and process paid off for Duke basketball at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Standing on the court with blue-and-white confetti under his feet, assistant coach Amile Jefferson reflected on a group of Blue Devils that feature four freshmen starters around the one starter – junior captain Jeremy Roach – from the 2022 Final Four squad in legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season.
Even in going from Coach K, college basketball’s all-time winningest coach, to a first-year coach in Jon Scheyer, the Blue Devils never wavered in their belief that the tradition of excellence would continue.
“It’s a beautiful process. One thing you can’t do: You can’t cheat the process,” Jefferson said Saturday after Duke’s 59-49 win against Virginia in the championship game of the ACC Tournament.
“I think Jon’s vision has been unbelievable. I’m here because of him and the vision he had, and because of Coach K. I’m indebted to them for an unbelievable deal. Jon has been amazing throughout. It doesn’t mean we’ve been perfect, but we have grown the whole year – and we stayed the course. We have an amazing group, we believe in them, we work every day. … It’s been a beautiful journey.”
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A former captain and 2015 national champion, Jefferson joined Coach K’s staff in 2021 as the team’s director of player development before being promoted to assistant coach ahead of Scheyer’s debut season.
“I will say I’m not sure any of this happens without Coach K’s initial vision of wanting – some coaches can say it, but not everybody means it or believes it – where they want to see the program continue on at such a high level,” Scheyer said.
“And he wanted it. … For me, it’s about the belief we had in each other, and it started with that moment right there.”
Though Jefferson described the ride as beautiful, there were some blemishes on the road to the net-cutting portion of Duke’s season. Following a win that secured the program’s 22nd ACC Tournament championship, the Blue Devils (26-8) beamed as they celebrated the culmination of a journey that included its share of ups and downs.
“It’s not crazy that we pulled it off. We knew what we had,” said Roach, who scored a career-high 23 points against the Cavaliers. “Obviously, we were struggling a little bit at the beginning – we’re a young group of guys. They were gonna learn and we learn real quick. Now, we’re ACC champs.”
Duke’s schedule features a 19-point loss to Purdue in November, a 24-point shellacking at NC State in January and back-to-back losses to Miami and Virginia in February.
There was a message on a whiteboard inside Duke’s locker room Saturday that read: Physically tough, mentally tough, go take it. The Blue Devils checked each box during their week in Greensboro.
“There hasn’t been a season that I’ve been a part of, whether it’s as a player or as a coach, that hasn’t had those ups and downs,” Scheyer said. “It’s a matter of the timing of them and the circumstances.”
The Blue Devils haven’t lost since that controversial defeat at Virginia, reeling off nine straight wins and improving to 17-1 with their full roster available. It was “amazing,” Jefferson said, to see Duke’s young players rise to a championship standard.
Mark Mitchell, Tyrese Proctor, Dereck Lively and Kyle Filipowski – the ACC Rookie of the Year and ACC Tournament MVP – are the usual four starters that surround Roach.
“When I was an older guy and we got to this point – now seeing Jeremy and those guys at this point – once you get to February and March, there are no more classes,” Jefferson said.
“We’re just one team. A freshman talks to a senior the same way a senior talks to a freshman, and that’s where you start building a bond that’s really unbreakable and that’s when you become brothers.”
The Blue Devils are so connected, they had similar quotes about sticking with the process, the plan and creating the chemistry that led to Saturday’s celebration.
“We were just able to just trust one another. We weren’t listening to anyone else, we weren’t listening to any media, we weren’t listening to any hecklers or anything like that,” Lively said. “We just focused on ourselves. We focused on ourselves – building chemistry, building connections. We’ve definitely done that.”
The scary part is there’s still more basketball to be played with the Blue Devils finding out their March Madness destination on Selection Sunday as CBS reveals the 2023 NCAA Tournament bracket.
“We got young guys, they just needed time to adjust,” Jefferson said.
“They’ve done it beautifully. The one thing they’ve never stopped doing was working. You’re not surprised to see the jumps and improvements they’ve made. We’re a better team today than we were a week ago, than we were three weeks ago, because of that work ethic.”
On the dais inside the Odeon Theatre, with Scheyer on his left and Roach on his right, Filipowski gave his perspective on Duke’s rise from a new group to one that looks like a veteran squad.
“Just seeing how much we’ve come together as a team, where we started, we had almost a brand-new team, and (Roach) kind of had to lead the way,” Filipowski said.
“Just everyone in their roles, knowing what the main goal was, we really bought into that. And we did buy the motto – one vision – and we’re going to keep doing that. I think that’s just what makes us so special is just pushing through the ups and downs.”
Staff writer Rodd Baxley can be reached at email@example.com or @RoddBaxley on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Duke basketball goes from Coach K to Jon Scheyer, wins ACC Tournament