Transition game: UNC, Duke enter new eras with talent-laden teams

The state’s top two basketball programs prepare to move on from Hall of Fame coaches

UNC coach Hubert Davis speaks with his players during last Wednesday's practice in Chapel Hill. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Jon Scheyer won’t have to do any scouting this year.

According to the Duke coaching staff, that’s the biggest difference on the Blue Devils’ bench this season. Instead of having the three assistant coaches divide up the responsibilities of watching tape of upcoming opponents among themselves, as most college basketball teams do, Duke will have assistants Chris Carrawell and Nolan Smith do all the scouts this year.

That’s because Scheyer will be busy preparing to take over the program when coach Mike Krzyzewski retires at the end of the year.

“Jon is ready, and I knew that when we put this whole thing together in the spring,” Coach K said. “He’s a natural. He’s a great relationship builder and a hard worker. He’s got it.”

To make things seem as normal as possible, Krzyzewski has banned the word “last” — as in “last media day,” “last opening game,” “last ACC Tournament.”

Scheyer also thinks things have been normal, at least when comparing it to last year’s COVID-altered setup for the season.

“It has actually been more like a normal preparation,” he said. “Obviously, you think of the last year and everything that was unusual. Naturally this year, when you think about the summer, you think about the preseason — we feel like we are way further along in terms of our comraderie, our understanding of concepts, and execution. It has been exciting just to bond in a normal way this year.”

Also back to normal for Duke? A physically imposing incoming class. Krzyzewski and Carrawell both raved about the “grown men bodies” that are joining the Blue Devils. Not since the Zion Williamson-RJ Barrett-Cam Reddish class came to Durham have a group of newcomers been so ready to contribute.

Paolo Banchero is a candidate to be the first overall pick in the NBA Draft next spring.

“Paolo is a great player. He’s a legit 6-10 and can move really well,” said sophomore center Mark Williams, himself a physically dominant talent who is poised for a breakout year.

One of the other “grown man” newcomers is Theo John, who arrives from Marquette as a graduate transfer. He’s an experienced shot-blocking center who gives Duke three potential forces in the paint to go with an impressive array of wings and guards.

The Blue Devils roster holds the potential to give Coach K a sendoff worthy of a Hall of Fame coach.

Meanwhile, up the road, another Hall of Famer has already been sent off. North Carolina opened practice last week with a familiar face on the sideline but an even more familiar one conspicuously absent. Former Tar Heels player and longtime assistant Hubert Davis was there, running the program after taking over for the retired Roy Williams in the offseason.

Turning UNC basketball over to Davis, who played for Dean Smith and coached under Williams, gives the program the strongest sense of continuity in the nation. UNC’s practice plan each day has a “thought of the day” at the top — a tradition started by Smith.

For the first practice, Davis chose, “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.” He then gathered the team, quizzed them to make sure they had read and retained the thought of the day and delivered the punch line.

“You know how many years in a row that that thought of the day has been the thought of the day for the first day of practice? Sixty. Today is 60. Sixty straight years that that is the thought of the day on the first day of practice.”

Despite the consistency with the Carolina Way, the intense, focused Davis is clearly taking his own approach toward running the team. He’s given one media availability since taking over the program, too busy getting his roster and team ready for the year. He needs to jell three transfers — Oklahoma’s Brady Manek, Virginia’s Justin McKoy and Marquette’s Dawson Garcia — a freshman class of Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn, and returning stars Armando Bacot and Caleb Love. The pieces are there, but it will take some work, and Davis dove right in.

“I don’t have any brakes,” he said. “There are no brakes. It’s all gas pedal since April. It’s been pushing the gas pedal all the way down to the floor.”

To emphasize that, he stopped practice on the first day to scold a player for tapping the brakes late in the session.

“If you’re tired, I don’t care,” he said. “I’m tired too. I’m tired of losing. I’m tired of not going to the Final Four. I’m tired of not winning the championship.”

As Davis keeps things the same in Chapel Hill, he’s doing all he can to make sure they change. And up the road a bit, the archrival Blue Devils are doing the same thing.

Some things never change.