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Crothers: Prophetic Words From Scheyer & Williams

Wednesday, April 7, 2010 3:35pm

It was just another answer to another question. Not remarkable at the time.

What motivates you?

“People doubting me,” said Jon Scheyer without a pause. “I just feel that I’m a really good player and that this is a really great team and I think people doubt both sometimes, so that’s what motivates me. That’s what motivates all of us.”

It was early January and eighth-ranked Duke had just defeated Boston College by 20 at Cameron. The NCAA tournament still seemed like it was a hundred years away. Scheyer sat on a folding chair in front of his locker and told me that despite Duke’s three disappointing showings in the NCAAs during his career, he would not allow himself to think ahead. Then later in the conversation he slipped up and happened to mention the dates of the Final Four.

Scheyer acknowledged that some of the players in that room other than him, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler would need to emerge if the Blue Devils were going to even sniff a national title and then he craned his neck in the direction of Brian Zoubek, who was sitting alone at a nearby locker staring down at his huge shoes. Who had been doubted more than that guy? Scheyer asked me how many rebounds Zoubek had collected in that night’s game. I looked at a boxscore and said he’d had 11 in 16 minutes off the bench. Scheyer flashed his trademark broken grin and nodded cryptically.

Part of me thought he was just saying what he was supposed to say. Fast-forward a half season. To Indianapolis. Monday night. There was Jon Scheyer holding the national championship trophy on the podium and wearing that same goofy grin. Standing directly behind him was Zoubek, the man who had clearly become his team’s X-factor late in the season. Duke won 15 of its last 16 games after Zoubek was inserted into the starting lineup. I couldn’t help but think back on my conversation with Scheyer. Shame on me for doubting him.

It was just another answer to another question. Not remarkable at the time.

How does your team look?

“We’re not very good right now,” Roy Williams said without a pause. “Every college coach will tell you that ideally you’d like to have experienced talent. We’ve got talent, but without the experience it’s really hard to predict what might happen.”

It was early November, shortly after Williams and his team had returned from a covert pre-season scrimmage at Vanderbilt. By all accounts, the Tar Heels were stunningly overmatched in that game against the Commodores. Williams shared with me all of his team’s potential weaknesses. It took awhile. Then he talked about how a young team’s confidence can be desperately fragile.

Part of me thought he was just saying what he was supposed to say. Fast-forward a half season. To Charleston. January 4. The ninth-ranked Tar Heels entered that game against College of Charleston with an 11-3 record, including wins over Ohio State and Michigan State. The Tar Heels led the Cougars 72-61 with 4:02 left. Then Charleston outscored UNC 12-1 down the stretch, before finishing off the 82-79 upset in overtime. It was precisely the kind of comeback we’ve come to expect in a UNC game, but UNC isn’t supposed to be the victim. The Tar Heels shot just 38 percent from the field, sank only one three-pointer and committed 13 turnovers. Some of the younger UNC players looked intimidated by the hostile crowd. The Charleston collapse precipitated a crisis of confidence--11 losses in 14 games--that left the Tar Heels relegated to the NIT. I couldn’t help but think back on my conversation with Williams. Shame on me for doubting him.

Duke and North Carolina crossed paths twice along their journeys during the 2010 season. The first time at the Smith Center on Feb. 10 felt like UNC’s last stand. The game was tied with seven minutes remaining. Then Duke launched a devastating 16-5 run. By the time the two teams met again in Durham 24 days later, Duke was soaring as unmistakably as UNC was cratering. The Blue Devils pounded the Tar Heels by 32 points in a game that wasn’t that close and their respective evolutions were nearly complete.

It’s interesting how it all turned out. UNC and Duke, the last two ACC teams playing, just like we all thought they would be. But who could have imagined just how different their seasons would become?

Two people come to mind.

Tim Crothers is the author of The Man Watching: A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever, and he is the co-author of Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court,” the autobiography of Roy Williams.