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August 11, 2009

Scheyer, Duke looking to silence doubters

DURHAM, N.C. - Duke guard Jon Scheyer never bothered to read what the media said about the Blue Devils in the past, but the sense of urgency surrounding his senior season has caused him to change his habits.

The guy who used to avoid any Duke-related newspaper articles now is searching for clippings, as if he's a proud mother putting together a scrapbook. Only in this case, he's seeking out negative articles instead of positive reviews.

"Instead of not worrying about what people say, I want to face everything," Scheyer says. "I think it's something that as a team we really need to address. For the last three years, we've taken a lot of crap. It's about time we start listening to what people say and throw it back in their face."

Scheyer has no shortage of material.

Though Duke reached the Sweet 16 and won the ACC tournament last season, the Blue Devils haven't quite lived up to the program's lofty standards recently. North Carolina has won two national titles since Duke made its last trip to the Final Four, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed on Tobacco Road. Duke hasn't reached the Final Four since 2004, which marks its longest drought since the mid-1980s.

Scheyer has heard and read enough critiques that he can recite them off the top of his head.

Duke doesn't have enough depth in the backcourt to make a deep NCAA tournament run.

Scheyer isn't a good enough athlete to carry a team.

Duke might not even be a tournament team this season.

Does he feel the Blue Devils already are being counted out?

"Definitely, definitely," Scheyer says. "I think part of it has to do with North Carolina. People have loved them the last couple of years. Part of it is, I think, people may underestimate Kyle Singler, myself and the rest of our team. I think we need to have a certain swagger about ourselves this year that we haven't had before. That's something that can really pay off."

Ninety-nine percent of the programs in the country would love to have Duke's problems. The Blue Devils are coming off a season in which they went 30-7, earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and won their eighth ACC tournament title in the past 11 seasons.

Then again, players don't attend Duke merely to win ACC titles; they typically have bigger goals in mind. That much was evident when the Blue Devils reported to a weight-training session the morning of the NCAA championship game, several hours before their archrivals would win their second national title in the past five seasons.

"We had a lift that morning and our strength coach said, 'We're not going to be here next year. We're lifting this morning, but next year we're going to be warming up for a shootaround for this game,' " Scheyer recalls. "All of us looked at each other and we all agreed with him, to say the least."

Duke's 'drought'
Duke made its 14th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance last season, but the Blue Devils haven't advanced to the Final Four since reaching the semifinals in 2004. That marks Duke's longest Final Four drought since the seven-season absence between its 1978 semifinal appearance and its 1986 berth in the championship game. Here is how Duke has fared over the past five season.
Season Record Postseason
2004-0527-6NCAA Sweet 16
2005-0632-4NCAA Sweet 16
2006-0722-11NCAA first round
2007-0828-6NCAA second round
2008-0930-7NCAA Sweet 16
At the time, the Blue Devils had plenty of reason to feel optimistic. Duke figured to return the nucleus of its Sweet 16 squad - it didn't have a senior who averaged as much as five points per game last season. But Duke's outlook has changed.

First came swingman Gerald Henderson's decision to forgo his senior season to enter the NBA draft, where he was taken by the Charlotte Bobcats with the 12th pick. Then came the announcement that freshman guard Elliot Williams planned to transfer to Memphis to be closer to his ailing mother.

That one-two punch has left Scheyer and junior Nolan Smith as the only scholarship guards on the roster, though that could change if Andre Dawkins - listed as a five-star prospect for the Class of 2010 - receives clearance to play at Duke a year earlier than expected.

Duke's ability to withstand that lack of depth in the backcourt depends largely on the progress of Scheyer and Singler.

Scheyer played the best basketball of his career late last season after moving to point guard. He averaged 18.6 points, 2.4 assists and 1.8 steals over the last 12 games of the season and was named the ACC tournament's most valuable player.

Singler, a 6-foot-8 junior, earned second-team All-ACC honors as a power forward last season, but the Blue Devils plan to capitalize on his versatility by making him more of a perimeter player this season. If Singler thrives in that role, he could help Duke solve some of its backcourt issues.

"Pretty much through AAU and high school, I usually had the ball in my hands most of the time," Singler says. "There's been a little transition for me lately, but I'm getting back in the swing of things and getting more comfortable with the ball."

The lack of guards could cause the Blue Devils to utilize some unique strategies. Singler and Scheyer mentioned the possibility of occasionally playing a zone defense, a practice Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski typically has avoided.

Duke also could counteract its lack of guards by making the most of its size. Duke's roster includes six players who are at least 6-8 and four guys who are at least 6-10. The Blue Devils don't need long memories to see how this formula could work in the ACC: Florida State earned its first NCAA tournament bid since 1998 last season with five guys 6-7 or taller earning at least 16 starts.

Rivalry reversal
Duke went 14-2 against North Carolina from 1998-99 through 2003-04, but the Tar Heels began turning things around during their 2004-05 national championship season. Here's a game-by-game look at the 10 regular season games in the Duke-UNC rivalry since the 2004-05 season.
Date Location Result
Feb. 9, 2005DurhamDuke 71-70
March 6, 2005Chapel HillNorth Carolina 75-73
Feb. 7, 2006 Chapel HillDuke 87-83
March 4, 2006DurhamNorth Carolina 83-76
Feb. 7, 2007DurhamNorth Carolina 79-73
March 4, 2007Chapel Hill North Carolina 86-72
Feb. 6, 2008Chapel HillDuke 89-78
March 8, 2008DurhamNorth Carolina 76-68
Feb. 11, 2009DurhamNorth Carolina 101-87
March 8, 2009 Chapel HillNorth Carolina 79-71
"Florida State comes to mind, how big they were last season," Singler says. "I can see us kind of being like Florida State was size-wise last year. Even though we might lack guards, we can create problems for other teams with our size."

The unusual composition of Duke's roster creates a bit of a jigsaw puzzle for Krzyzewski as he tries to find which players best fit certain roles. If he can put all the pieces together, Duke has enough talent to contend for a title in the wide-open ACC.

North Carolina lost four starters from its national championship team. Clemson must break in three new starters. Two of Wake Forest's top three players left school early to enter the draft. Florida State must replace 2008-09 ACC scoring leader Toney Douglas.

The uncertain situation facing its ACC rivals helps explain why Duke was generally considered a preseason favorite to win the conference before Henderson and Williams left the team. Scheyer doesn't see any reason that should change now.

"I don't know why a team would be picked over us," Scheyer says. "I think we're that good."

But Duke's one-sided loss to Villanova in the East Region semifinals raised doubts about whether this group of players can make a Final Four run. The backcourt will be a source of concern all season, especially if either Scheyer or Smith can't stay healthy. Duke's upperclassmen still haven't proved they know how to beat North Carolina, which has won six of its past seven games against the Blue Devils.

Of course, Scheyer already is well aware of what the skeptics are saying. He has spent the summer reading all about it.

"They're entitled to their opinion," he says. "It just gets me excited for the year, to prove people wrong."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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