By Jim Sumner, From GoDuke The Magazine
DURHAM, N.C.-- Is this the year? Is this the year the Duke women are the last team standing, the year they win it all?
It may not be fair to judge a program by what it has not done. By any standard, the Duke women’s basketball program is exceptionally successful. Duke has made an appearance in the last 19 NCAA tournaments and has won eight of the last 14 ACC Tournaments. The Blue Devils have won 30 or more games 10 times since 2001. Individual honors have accumulated at a dizzying rate.
Yet something is missing in the Cameron rafters. Is this the year?
Duke is loaded. The Blue Devils have experience; five seniors are in the rotation. They have size; five players 6-3 or taller are in the rotation. They are hungry. Their last four seasons have ended with losses in regional title games.
Most of all, they have talent. Eleven of the 14 recruited players were prep All-Americans. Duke also passes the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately test. Chelsea Gray, Elizabeth Williams and Tricia Liston have been named to the 30-player Wooden Award preseason watch list. Gray and Williams were first-team All-ACC and AP All-America last season. Sophomore guard Alexis Jones was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2013 ACC Tournament.
But there’s another variable. Health. Duke finished last season 33-3 with ACC regular-season and tournament titles. But any realistic chances of winning the national title ended when Gray went down with a dislocated knee, fighting for a rebound against Wake Forest on February 17.
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie calls last season “a great year, an unbelievable season but a painful one. We were extremely disappointed. What happened to Chelsea doesn’t happen very often.”
Gray is healthy now and primed for a big senior season. She might be the nation’s best guard. McCallie loves her versatility. “Chelsea’s the most versatile guard in the country, bar none. She can post up, she can drive, she can shoot, she can pass. She’s a one, a two, a three. She’s all over the place.”
Gray’s return to health isn’t the only good news. Williams, a junior center, has been hampered by leg woes for two seasons. She took the summer off and early returns show more lift and quickness. An elite defender, the 6-3 Williams has at least one blocked shot in every one of her 69 Duke games.
The rest of the injury report is more mixed. Post reserves Amber Henson and Katie Heckman missed last season following knee surgery. Henson is in her third year at Duke but is still a redshirt freshman, following two injury redshirts. She’s finally cleared to play but may be forced to sit out practices.
Freshmen guards Kianna Holland and Rebecca Greenwell have battled leg and knee problems respectively. The 5-8 Holland — McCallie says she might be the quickest player she’s ever coached — should be back by conference play. But Greenwell, who hit 17 three-pointers in a prep game last season, might be a redshirt candidate.
Williams should be joined on the front line by seniors Haley Peters and Tricia Liston. The 6-3 take-no-prisoners Peters was Duke’s leading rebounder last season and has refined her perimeter game over the course of her career. She made 47 percent from beyond the arc last season.
But no one has expanded their game more than Liston, a 6-1 senior, capable of playing anywhere on the perimeter. Liston is a deadly shooter; she made 46 percent of her three-pointers and 93 percent of her foul shots last season.
McCallie praises Liston’s hard work. “She came in as a shooter but has developed her game. She can score coming off screens, putting the ball on the floor, posting up. She’s become a general on the floor.”
Liston played last summer for the U.S. World University Games gold-medal team. She says the experience was invaluable. “Playing with a bunch of people who are the best players on their team helped me see things from a different view, helped me see what I wasn’t doing well and what I was doing well. It helped me grow physically and mentally.”
Then there’s Jones, the quick, sophomore lefty. Jones also represented the U.S. over the summer, starting all nine games for the U.S. U19 team, which also won gold. Jones made a big step up last season after Gray went down and McCallie is looking forward to seeing what she has in the backcourt.
Henson and true freshmen Oderah Chidom and Kendall McCravey-Cooper — all three are 6-4 — give Duke more options in the post. Like most freshmen, Chidom and Cooper struggle with consistency. But both are aggressive on the boards and figure to challenge for time on the court.
McCallie says Williams will benefit from their presence “Our post group is very deep, very excited and very ready. What a treat for Elizabeth. She’s going to have a lot more space. If teams are going to double-team her like they have in the past, they’re going to give up a lot of O-boards that are going to be picked up by people like Kendall, Oderah and Amber. That gives her a lot more ability to operate because you have to honor those people.”
The pundits have noticed all this talent. Duke is ranked second in the preseason USA Today Coach’s Poll. Notre Dame will make the ACC even tougher and the non-conference schedule is brutal. Duke will be tested.
McCallie says Duke will meet these tests with versatility and experience. “ We want players who can do multiple things on the floor. That makes us harder to guard, harder to scout. It can be a special situation. This team can probably sit me down if they do it right. I have to manage them. When they go, I’ve got to let them go a little bit. When you have experience, you’ve to go to it. There’s a of lot knowledge of what we do and we’re going to build on it.”
The seniors have that special urgency only seniors have. Liston notes, “We’ve been together from the start. We’ve been through a lot.” Gray calls her class “a tight-knit group. A family within a family. A family with goals.”
McCallie says she has to put together the pieces of what she calls “a nice puzzle. We’re a highly motivated team, good depth, fun to watch. We’re more connected than we have been because of what we’ve been through. We’re hoping for health, playing together, really respecting the opportunity that we have in front of that and the best health possible. If that happens, we’re going to be very good. It would be fitting for the seniors to go out the way they want to go out. They chose a special road, a high road.”