After three NCAA disappointments, Duke's Scheyer living his childhood dream
Jon Scheyer has gone on record saying it wouldn't be the end of the world if he didn't reach a Final Four during his four years at Duke.
"I kind of lied," Scheyer said. "This is very meaningful. I've been wanting to do this my whole life, go to a Final Four, win a national championship.
"I think I would have always looked back on my career and not getting to the Final Four. That's something I would have regretted."
There will be no regret, of course. Scheyer will get his chance to live out his childhood dream -- one that goes back to a VHS cassette of the 1994 NCAA tournament that he received as a Christmas present as a youngster -- when Duke takes the floor against West Virginia in the NCAA tournament semifinals on Saturday.
While that tape is long gone, Scheyer can still recall plenty of the highlights from it, especially the ones of Duke's run to the national championship game that turned him into a college basketball fan and sparked his own hopes of playing in a Final Four.
"I watched it over and over again," Scheyer said. "I was in love with that Duke team and that tournament. I was a big Duke fan. It was something that got me started."
And it never stopped, but he did have his reasons for lying about the Final Four's importance to him. It's not as if he could have come out and said that his career was a waste if Duke didn't reach that pinnacle. He and the Blue Devils had accomplished plenty throughout his first three seasons; they just hadn't done much in the NCAA tournament.
His three previous NCAA tournaments included a first-round exit as a freshman, a second-round loss as a sophomore and last year's Sweet 16 appearance. His career NCAA record was 3-3, and there was no guarantee that this season would be any different.
Truthfully, though, Scheyer would have winced when thinking back on his college career if Duke hadn't reached the Final Four this season. Back in 2005, he chose the Blue Devils over Arizona, Illinois and Wisconsin coming out of Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill., because it was the place he believed provided him the best chance at playing in the Final Four.
The truth is: Winning is all that matters to Scheyer. While a lot of players may say that, Scheyer has lived it.
"I think everything about Jon is defined by winning," said Duke associate head coach Chris Collins, who also grew up in Northbrook and has known Scheyer for most of his life. "He's not a guy who's going to overwhelm you with flashiness. He's just a guy who goes out to win. For him to leave a legacy here, he wanted to go out with a championship. Winning the ACC title, getting to the Final Four, that puts a stamp on what he's done here and what he's meant to our program.
"He has a toughness, competitive fire that makes him unique. That's what takes him from being a really good player to a great player."
This season has been unlike any of Scheyer's previous three at Duke.
For one, Scheyer was given a larger role. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made Scheyer his point guard. Krzyzewski put the ball in Scheyer's hands and allowed him to make the decisions of when to pass and when to shoot. Scheyer didn't let him down as he averaged team highs of 18.2 points and 4.8 assists. He also had a 2.9-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Secondly, Scheyer considered this season's Duke team to be a real team. There weren't individuals looking out for themselves as there had been in the past.
"Our togetherness as a team, I can promise not every team has that," Scheyer said. "I know that because I hadn't had that since I've been here. This group is the closest I've been on."
Finally, Scheyer saw the end of his college career approaching and was driven to another level.
"I didn't accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish my first three years," Scheyer said. "This year was my chance to win everything I haven't accomplished.
"I think this team more than any team, we were waiting to get to the NCAA tournament. This team was waiting for the NCAA tournament because that's where we haven't made any damage. People were saying this year we didn't deserve a No. 1 seed. This is our last chance. For a lot of this team, this is our last opportunity to do something about this."
It's an attitude that Scheyer's former Glenbrook North coach David Weber has seen the entire Duke team follow this season.
"The team has definitely taken on his personality," Weber said. "He's calm, but he's competitive. He's a great role model for young kids when you're watching those games. You don't see a lot of players like Jon Scheyer around the country."
So far, Scheyer's final season has been everything he's wanted. He played like an All-American from the start and was in the discussion for national player of the year for a few months. His early performances included a career-high 36 points, including seven 3-pointers, eight rebounds and nine assists against Gardner Webb.
On Jan. 6, Scheyer made an emotional return home to Chicago and scored 31 points in a win over Iowa State at the United Center. Two months later, he closed out his Cameron Indoor Stadium career with 20 points, five rebounds and seven assists in a 32-point win over rival North Carolina. That victory also gave Duke a share of the ACC regular-season title, its first in Scheyer's career. Eight days later, he had 16 points and a key 3-pointer in the final seconds to beat Georgia Tech to win the ACC tournament title.
Finally on March 28 against Baylor in the Elite Eight, he stepped up once again. With Duke going more than five minutes without a field goal in the second half, Scheyer snapped the Blue Devils out of their funk with a 3-pointer with 5:14 left to tie the game at 57-57. With 2:37 remaining, he hit another 3 to put Duke ahead 67-61. Baylor wouldn't come within five points the rest of the way. Scheyer finished with 20 points, five rebounds and four assists.
From the whole season, the one specific moment that stood out came during the Baylor win.
"There was a TV timeout with under four minutes in the second half," Scheyer said. "I'm pretty sure we were tied or down by one [Duke trailed 61-60]. There was 3:39 [actually 3:36 left] on the clock, I'm pretty sure. I came to the bench and was kind of looking around. I thought, 'This is it. It was a three-minute game for our season, everything you've been working for your whole life.' I smiled and went for it. That was the most surreal moment. That is a moment I'll never forget."
Whenever Scheyer's college career ends in the next few days, he is expected to continue playing at the next level. Most NBA draft analysts have him going somewhere in the second round, but Larry Butler, his former AAU coach with the Illinois Warriors, has started to hear differently lately.
"Talking to all my NBA resources in the last couple weeks, he's moved up the ladder," said Butler, whose past players have included Andre Iguodala, Quentin Richardson and Dwyane Wade. "He could be a late first-round pick. He's shown his toughness, his will to win. He brings all those little intangibles to the table that the elite players do. He's always making the right pass, always making the big shots, always making the big plays, always making his free throws. He's not thought of as a defensive player, but he'll make a stop when he needs to.
"It's not a surprise to me because the kid is a winner. The kid is a winner. He's always been a winner. It's only fitting for him to make it to the Final Four his senior year."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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