As Duke vs. UNC enters a new chapter, elite recruits prepare to lead programs into next era of rivalry

Simeon Wilcher was restless. The Roselle Catholic (NJ) combo guard committed to North Carolina before watching Hubert Davis coach a game as the program’s head coach. Now the Tar Heels, behind Davis, found themselves in the Final Four in a historic matchup with rival Duke — a national championship game berth on the line.

“My first experience with the rivalry really came in March Madness,” Wilcher told CBS Sports. “Being committed to North Carolina kind of made it a part of me now because as a little kid watching the game, it was kind of just another big game.

“I was extremely excited, especially because it had never happened before and it was the very last one (with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski). I had to go out and watch it. I couldn’t even watch it at home.”

The No. 3 combo guard in the 2023 class left his house, decked in North Carolina gear, and went to the local Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the game. The restaurant had plenty of fans rooting for both sides, and after North Carolina closed a hard-fought 81-77 victory to move on to the title game, Wilcher said he ran a lap of the restaurant.

“It was just amazing and the game was competitive the whole game,” Wilcher said. “So it had you at the edge of your seat, and that’s really what it’s all about.

“Going to be a part of that rivalry now, it means a lot more to me.”

A future rival found his team on the other end of that result. 2023 point guard Caleb Foster said he grew up rooting for Duke, cheering the Blue Devils on every time they squared off against their Tobacco Road foes. When new Duke coach Jon Scheyer then approached Foster with the chance to become a Blue Devil, it didn’t take much thought. 

Foster committed in September, then watched closely as the Blue Devils battled adversity and the pressure that came with needing to make a run in Krzyzewski’s final go. And while that journey stopped short of a title in the Final Four, Foster said he was proud of his future program.

“It was very cool. Great atmosphere, just everything surrounding the game,” Foster said. “Obviously we didn’t win or come out with the W, but I feel like the team … they battled through a lot all season and I’m really proud of how they finished out the season.”

Now Wilcher and Foster head into their senior seasons knowing they’ll be among the earliest players to don the opposing shades of blue as Davis and Scheyer attempt to keep the programs rolling at breakneck paces.

“I think it has kind of this whole new slate, a brand new slate with the new coaches and everything,” Wilcher said. “It’s a fresh start.

“I’m going to be on the second (team) under the new coaches, the second year of them doing the rivalry after Coach K. Being one of the first ones, that’s kind of fun. I’m very excited about it.”

The Duke-North Carolina rivalry dates back well before the days of Krzyzewski-Dean Smith, or even Krzyzewski-Roy Williams, in more recent years. But those coaches and the explosion of college basketball onto cable television helped turn Duke vs. North Carolina into Duke vs. North Carolina™ — a national must-watch on a year-by-year basis. Since Krzyzewski took over the Blue Devils in the 1980-81 season, the two schools have combined for 10 national championships; all five of Duke’s titles belong to Krzyzewski, while Williams (three) and Smith (two) have five of North Carolina’s six NCAA titles.

Yet none of the three will be coaching when Duke and North Carolina square off for the first time this year. North Carolina will enter its second season under Davis after his first year saw the Tar Heels reach the national championship game. For its part, Duke will turn to its own long-time assistant turned first-time head coach in Scheyer. Scheyer did provide a slight preview last season of what’s to come, serving as acting head coach in a win over Boston College.

If last weekend’s EYBL — the Nike grassroots league — session was any indication, the rivalry won’t be short on talent for the foreseeable future.

North Carolina boasts the No. 14 recruiting class according to 247Sports, one that sat at No. 3 before Thursday’s news that top-ranked player GG Jackson would decommit and likely reclassify. That leaves Wilcher as the lone player in the class, but he’s a good one as 247Sports’ No. 18 overall player. Wilcher currently has a four-star ranking, though it’s worth noting that around 25 players typically achieve a five-star ranking in the class, so he’s tracking to get that fifth star. 2022 saw 24 five-star players, according to 247Sports, while 2021 had 29.

Hubert Davis led North Carolina to a title game appearance in his first season at the helm. 
Getty Images

For its part, Duke has done even better. Scheyer inked the nation’s best recruiting class for the 2021-22 cycle, and the EYBL session showed off some of the key components of the current No. 1 class for 2023 as well in Mackenzie Mgbako (No. 6 in 247Sports’ rankings), Foster (17) and Jared McCain (30). Sean Stewart (9) would also have taken part, though he wasn’t in Kansas City as he played for Team USA instead.

Foster made up for Stewart’s absence with one of the weekend’s best performances when he dropped 38 points and eight rebounds for Team Thad in a close loss to ProSkills, a performance that followed a 26-point, six-rebound, six-assist showing in a win over NH Lightning.

“I was feeling really good,” Foster said. “I was just trying to do whatever it took for my team to win. We started off slow, everybody. Me especially, I started off slow the first half. So just giving it my all, that’s all Coach Scheyer wants. I just want to go out there and give it all I can. We just came out a little short, but I’m proud of our team and the effort we gave.”

At the same time, Wilcher starred for City Rocks, often choosing to get his teammates involved.

“I just feel like that’s how the game is supposed to be played,” Wilcher said. “We all feed off each other, so if we all score, we all look good. When we’re winning, we all look good. When we win, we’re all able to get our individual goals. So that’s what it’s about for me.”

Both players bought into their respective coaches despite neither Davis nor Scheyer serve as full-time head coach. Foster’s commitment to Duke last September was quickly followed by Wilcher’s decision to choose the Tar Heels in October.

“First of all, Duke has been a place like I’ve always wanted to go,” Foster said. “I’ve dreamed of going. Me and my family, we watch all Duke’s games. Duke-Carolina, we’ve just always rooted for Duke. That was pretty much the first thing. That’s the dream school I’ve always wanted to go to. The second thing is, Coach Scheyer, he had a great pitch to me: come in, lead the team. And I just couldn’t ask for a better situation to go to. Plus it’s my dream school.”

Foster said that Krzyzewski was also involved in his recruiting process.

“On my visits, I talked to Coach K every time I went down,” Foster said. “He’s a great guy. He was telling me about how I should go ahead and make that move, coming to Duke. Coming from him, he kind of built the program up from the bottom, so that means a lot.”

And while North Carolina changed up its playing style in transitioning from Williams to Davis, Foster said he didn’t foresee similar changes at Duke.

“Nah, I don’t really think much is going to change,” Foster said. “He (Scheyer) probably has his own style of coaching. But he’s been behind Coach K for a little minute and he’s played for Coach K, so I have no doubt in my mind he’s going to be one of the top coaches in college basketball, considering that he’s been to the highest point; he won a national championship.

“He’s a genuine dude, more than other coaches. He’s consistent, I would say. He’s always texting you, checking in on you. And he’s going to actually coach you. That was a big thing for me: he’s coaching me, telling me what he’s seeing and what he really loves and what I need to do better. And he’s really honest. I think guys like we have with Mackenzie, Sean, Jared  and me, honesty’s a really big thing. He’s somebody that you feel like you can trust.”

Wilcher also made his decision before seeing Davis coach his first game with the Tar Heels.

“For me, it was really just putting myself on a stage where I feel like my dream would be able to come true. And at North Carolina, the stage doesn’t get bigger than that,” Wilcher said. “Even though I knew that Coach Hubert hadn’t coached a game yet, I knew he was a pro for a very long time, so he knows what it takes to win games and for you to become a professional. So I just trusted him in that. And then when I got on campus, it just felt right.”

Wilcher said it also felt right when he watched Davis work his way through the season.

“Everything that he was telling me that he was going to do when I got there, he was doing it already,” Wilcher said. “And as a first-year coach, not everybody really goes to the national championship in their first year. That just really made me double down on it, double down on my commitment to them. I was excited to get out there.”

On the way to the national championship game, Duke and North Carolina made history, meeting in the Final Four for the first time in the rivalry’s tenure. Now both players say that they’re even more connected to their colleges of choice. Wilcher has known North Carolina guard R.J. Davis “all my life,” and said it felt surreal to watch Davis star through the Tar Heels’ tournament run. Foster chipped in that he’s become close with his future Duke classmates through a group text, adding that all the recruits were feeling the Duke brotherhood even before arriving on campus. He also said that Duke’s No. 1 class isn’t finished yet.

“We’re just trying to get us one more,” Foster said.

Foster suffered an ankle injury at EYBL — he has since admitted it wasn’t serious — that kept the Duke commitment out of a Sunday matchup with his future rival Wilcher and City Rocks. But starting in 2023, those two could get plenty of chances to square off for their respective blue-blood schools. Wilcher said rivalry mode hasn’t quite kicked in yet among the Duke and North Carolina commitments.

“I’m sure it’ll get to that point,” Wilcher said. “Probably this coming school year with us being seniors and getting prepared to go to school, you’ll see it.”

Wilcher also said he expected the trend of competing for national titles to continue.

“Especially with the guys that are going to be back this year, with that experience … not everybody gets that experience to get all the way through March Madness because March Madness is all about upsets,” Wilcher said. “So with that experience and them going into the next year, it’s going to be great for them. Then when I step on campus, I’m going to have the opportunity to get out there myself.

“I’m just happy that I’m going to be a part of this rivalry and I’m going to get to take it with me the rest of my life.”


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