DURHAM, N.C.-- Accolades are nice. Injuries are not. If this year's edition of the Duke women's basketball team can get healthy, the honors and rankings should take care of themselves.
The Blue Devils have gone all over the country the past three springs while trying to get to the Final Four. Three years ago it was a final minute loss to Baylor in Memphis. Two years ago, UConn sent Duke home from Philadelphia. Last year's trip took longer, as the Blue Devils flew home from Fresno, Calif., after a loss to Stanford.
This year, the Final Four is in New Orleans and Duke has a chance to be there if good health returns.
"I'm getting a little tired of dealing with injuries that are held over from last year," said coach Joanne P. McCallie. "Only Katie's (freshman post player Heckman) ACL injury is new. We will get the others back gradually and should be a lot better in January than we will be to start the season."
The list of the walking wounded is long and starts with sophomore center Elizabeth Williams, who was limited at the end of the season with a stress fracture in her left leg. She took the summer off, but is now recovering from an injury to her left foot that has limited her practice time.
"It's a compensation thing," said McCallie. "She hurt it while trying to take the stress off her leg. She'll be fine shortly and we will be much better with her at full strength."
Williams earned preseason All-America recognition from some media organizations and first team All-ACC honors after a stellar freshman year that produced a team-high 14 points and eight rebounds per game.
Fellow sophomore Amber Henson is still recovering from ACL surgery on her right knee. The 6-5 post player is projected to return to game action sometime in early December.
Juniors Richa Jackson and Chloe Wells should return before then. Jackson is also coming off ACL surgery while Wells battled a shin problem throughout preseason. Jackson was having her best season as a Blue Devil before she hurt her knee late in the season against Virginia Tech.
Heckman had ACL surgery on November 8 and will miss the season.
With five players hampered to begin the season, it's up to the other eight to raise their game. Based on previous seasons, that game is pretty good.
Preseason All-ACC selection Chelsea Gray is in perfect health for the first time as a Blue Devil. Fellow juniors Tricia Liston and Haley Peters received votes for the all-league team as both averaged in double figures last year. Senior center Allison Vernerey has played in all 105 games during her career at Duke and should start even after Williams returns.
"Our core group is pretty good," said McCallie. "All of them are more mature and have more understanding of what the others are doing on the court. They can read each other and set each other up. This is the strongest team I've had in 21 years of coaching. Our bench press and pushups have gone very well. Our agility and quickness is better as well. Hopefully, it will pay off by us being able to dictate tempo and how physical the game will be played. Our off-court chemistry is better also."
Plenty of chemistry was built during the team's summer trip to Vernerey's home country of France. The team had dinner at Vernerey's house one night and spent the 10 days sightseeing, playing three games and, most importantly, bonding.
"We've had plenty of carry-over from that trip," said McCallie. "Everyone knows that a teammate has their back. It's great that we are that far along in that regard."
McCallie is counting on sophomores Ka'lia Johnson and Jenna Frush along with freshmen Alexis Jones and Sierra Moore to contribute early as well. Johnson played more relaxed and comfortable toward the end of the season, while the walkon Frush gave the team a lift from the sidelines and during practice.
Jones and Moore earned McDonald's All America honors in high school and both have stood out in preseason practice.
"They've both learned to compete on a high level quickly with no drama," said McCallie. "Sierra can play either forward spot and will give us rebounding and defense. She's not afraid to dive on the floor after a loose ball, which is great to see from a freshman. Alexis can play either guard spot and is a great passer with a good handle. She should be our first backcourt sub and will see plenty of playing time."
An innovation that has paid early dividends is that all players and coaches have iPads. Scouting reports and other videos can be sent to each player and coach, so time is better utilized and the planning process moves quicker.
"I really like the idea of having everything in one place," said McCallie. "It makes everything more streamlined and gets everyone on the same page quicker. It will really help when we have short turnaround times between games."
The nonconference schedule is diverse as usual. A return trip to Madison Square Garden for the Maggie Dixon Classic against St. John's in early December, a pre-holiday journey to Los Angeles for Southern Cal's tournament and a mid-January trek to UConn are three highlights.
Eighteen ACC games are on the slate for the first time. The Blue Devils have home and home series with UNC, Maryland, Miami, Boston College, Clemson, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech.
A challenging league schedule and good health should put Duke back in a position to play into April.
"It's always been time to take that next step and play in the Final Four," said McCallie. "We just have to keep pushing because we never know when that wall is coming down."
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