Duke beats Pitt in clash of Coach K assistants

Duke head coach Jon Scheyer, left, and Pittsburgh head coach Jeff Capel, right, both former players and assistant coaches at Duke, greet each other prior to the start of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

Two former Duke players and assistant coaches embraced before their teams played a key ACC game.

One was Jeff Capel, who left coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils staff to take the head coaching job at Pitt, presumably when it became clear to him that he wasn’t going to be chosen as the legendary coach’s successor. His Panthers were a surprising 4-1 in the ACC and a game out of first place. The other was the one who was chosen, Jon Scheyer, in his first year as Duke head coach. The Blue Devils were a game behind Pitt, at 3-2.

The two men had a long conversation, filled with smiles and back slaps, then they pulled out all the stops to defeat each other. It’s the way they learned from their mentor. Coach K had a long reputation for “eating his young” when he faced a former player or assistant on the other bench. Now, two of his young were squaring off. While neither coach would ever admit it, both certainly were approaching the game as an early referendum on Duke’s decision for Krzyzewski’s successor.

For the next hour or so, it appeared that Capel would get the chance to make his statement that the Blue Devils let the wrong man leave town. Midway through the first half, as Pitt went on a run to build a 12-point lead, he stood stoic next to his bench, arms folded. His players seemingly had answers for everything Duke tried. The Panthers stepped into passing lanes to pick off a pair of Duke passes and deflected two others, and Duke struggled with ball control en route to 12 first-half turnovers.

Pitt also showed off an innovative game plan. The Panthers entered the game as one of the ACC leaders in three-pointers made, but they took just 10 in the first half, hitting three. Instead, the Pitt players drove past Duke’s perimeter defenders and took quick mid-range jumpers once they found daylight. It was a shot that made up just 22% of Pitt’s offense entering the game but resulted in the majority of its first-half scoring total on Wednesday night.

“First half, we were able to get some stuff,” Capel said. “We maybe confused them a little bit with some of our rolls, putting pressure on the ground. We were able to skip it and make some multi-drives and things like that.”

Duke head coach Jon Scheyer, right, speaks with official Jeffrey Clark, left during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Pitt in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

While Capel watched his game plan executed to perfection, Scheyer paced the other bench, at his most emotional of the season. At one media time out, he came onto the court to protest a call, flirting with his first career technical foul. Referee Jeffrey Clark put his whistle in his mouth to make the call when assistant Amile Jefferson stepped in to intervene.

Duke battled to cut the lead to two, only to see Pitt go on a 9-0 run to close the half.

“They’ve made some really difficult shots and knocked us back in the first half,” Scheyer said.

Just when it seemed that the suitor who had been rejected would outcoach the man who got the job, however, Scheyer dug into his bag of tricks.

“They just made an adjustment and they switched everything,” Capel said, referring to Duke’s defense, which choked off the drives and mid-range jumpers Pitt had been feasting on. “They started switching every screen.”

“They’ve been given people problems in pick and roll,” Scheyer said of Pitt, “and they space you really well. They have many guys that can create off the bounce. …They get you in rotations. It’s very difficult. And so for us with our personnel, you know, we felt like this was actually going to be a coming out game for Derek (Lively, freshman center), because we’ve envisioned switching with him. And he made some big-time plays in this game and his switching I thought really bothered them.”

Suddenly, it was Pitt that didn’t have an answer and Duke that went on a run, outscoring Pitt 15-0 at one point to take the lead and pull away.

Pittsburgh head coach Jeff Capel protests a call during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Duke in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

As Duke prepared for a free throw late in the game, Capel gyrated, his face a mask of frustration as he pleaded his case with the officials. When he didn’t get the answer he wanted, he walked out to center court, arms up, to try to again get a referee’s attention. On the other bench, Scheyer stood in a crouch, hands on knees, watching the scene unfold.

“So, you know, coaching is coming up with a game plan,” Scheyer said. “We’ll see if this is something we do often or not, but to have that in our pocket is a valuable thing.”

In the end, Duke’s second-half rally produced a 77-69 win that tied the two teams for second place in the league. Scheyer and Capel met for another embrace at center court, with a long whispered conversation for their ears only.

“Jeff had his team really ready to play,” Scheyer said. “They compete. They’re really together. …  I’m just really proud of our team, the way we fought and competed in the second half. That, to me, is what it’s all about, being a Duke Basketball player, being a Duke Basketball team.”

And that team may have chosen a guy who can coach a little bit after all.