NEW YORK -- The young coach was joyfully surprised by the scene that unfolded in front of him. During a timeout Tuesday night, junior point guard Jeremy Roach took control of the Duke huddle and challenged one of his teammates. Freshman forward Mark Mitchell was on the receiving end of some forceful advice from Roach.
It was the first time Roach had ever done such a thing in that setting, Blue Devils coach Jon Scheyer told CBS Sports. A small action that's a greater reflection on Duke in its first season under the 35-year-old Scheyer.
"It's the best thing ever, where it's not coming from me, it's coming from him, and all of a sudden Mark drives and he's dunking on guys," Scheyer told CBS Sports. "To see him (Roach) not just feel it in that moment, but Mark respecting Jeremy that much where then Mark goes up and follows up on what Jeremy told him to do, that's a pretty cool thing that you just can't always have. You either have it or you don't -- and we do."
Roach is the unquestioned leader of a Blue Devils band bedecked with six freshmen and sophomore in the rotation, making them the youngest core group at the high-major level. On Tuesday night at the Jimmy V Classic, the 15th-ranked Devils casually cruised to a 74-62 win over Iowa. In the process, Duke held one of the most commanding offenses in the country -- Iowa entered the night ranked third in efficiency at KenPom -- to a season low in points.
The defense showed up again, as it has most nights. Tuesday was about Roach.
Back to that timeout.
Roach was encouraging Mitchell to be more assertive, to attack Iowa's vulnerable interior defense. Soon thereafter, Mitchell did -- to great results. Roach's words proved to be the key that unlocked Mitchell's second-best game of his season. He had 17 points, all of them coming near the rim or via the foul line. Roach saw the opportunities and spoke them into action. The behavior of a leader.
As the only major factor back from last season's Final Four team, Roach is growing into a vintage Duke captain.
"He keeps us together," Mitchell said. "A lot of us, you know, it's our first time playing in the Garden, he's played all these big-time events, so he keeps us together. He keeps us as one, and that's what a captain does."
Roach tied his career high with 22 points. The Hawkeyes had some periods where they lingered, but Duke never felt threatened. Roach sank all three of his 3-point attempts, making this the seventh time in his career he's hit at least three 3s. Duke is 7-0 in those games.
"Jeremy was really in control of our team from beginning to end," Scheyer said.
Duke is 9-2 and figures to be 10-2 after its final nonconference game on the slate: Saturday at home against Maryland Eastern Shore. It's a satisfactory opening third of Scheyer's inaugural go of it. With Roach as head of the snake, it's fair to start speculating if he's on his way to being one of the sport's best point guards. If so, that changes Duke's trajectory and makes this team a Final Four contender again. Scheyer knows a lot about those kind of seasons, and a former All-American himself who steered Duke's 2010 title-winning season.
"He has a calming influence. He's dealing with four freshmen, that's a hell of a thing to do," Scheyer said. "I have no doubt that he can reach that level and be an All-American and be there as one of the best guards in the country."
The numbers through 11 games don't reflect Roach's overall impact. He's averaging 13.4 points, 3.5 assists and 2.4 rebounds. That's ... good. His shooting still needs improvement, though. He's at 38.9%. By the numbers, Kyle Filipowski has been Duke's best player. But in that locker room, Roach is the guy. He's the most important player on this team, and that probably won't change.
If you've watched Duke play since early November, Roach's steady hand is why this team has two losses instead of three, four or five. He's blossoming into a guy who could contend for All-America status, which wasn't the assumption in the preseason. Consider: Duke managed to rebound well after the shellacking it took at the PK85 in the title game vs. Purdue on Nov. 27. Since then, Duke's won three straight, including a comfortable win over Ohio State.
Roach's play was so infectious, Trevor Keels couldn't help but thumb out the tweet below -- after sitting front row at MSG. Keels, who easily could have been playing alongside Roach on Tuesday night if not for leaving after his freshman season in April, sat alongside another former Duke teammate, Mark Williams.
Both are currently paying their dues at the G League level.
I really miss playing wit Jeremy Roach🥺— Keel Mode (@TrevorKeels) December 7, 2022
With Keels and almost everyone from that 32-7 team gone, so much responsibility falls on Roach. He's handling it gracefully. It's a lot to ask of a player in the first season after Mike Krzyzewski isn't on the sideline, but Roach was ready for the task.
"He's at his best in the biggest games," Scheyer said. "He's not afraid. He's a guy who's scoring and putting up numbers, but his impact on winning, his defending, his playmaking. He only had three assists, but made some really nice plays."
With the non-con portion basically done, a scan of Duke shows that the team is elite at offensive rebounding, is willing and wanting on defense, but has projects and problems to figure out on offense. Dereck Lively II, Dariq Whitehead and Tyrese Proctor haven't had their moments yet; I suspect those are coming in January and February. When Scheyer found out he was getting the Duke job, the two longstanding on-court principals of Duke basketball that meant the most to him were team defense and moving the ball on O. Roach is a big reason both of those things are features of this team.
In a season where Duke had more questions than in most others in recent memory, nothing was to be assumed or given. That still applies in many facets with this group, with the exception of one thing: If Roach is going to be as reliable going forward as he's been through the first five weeks of the season, then Duke in Year 1 under Scheyer will not be a disappointment.