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Rob's Big-Time Review, Part IV

Here is the fourth installment of Rob's Big-Time Review. In this section, Rob looks at Coach G's team next season

IV. Preliminary Season Preview.

We'll begin with my projected starting lineup:

  • C Whitley
  • F Tillis
  • G Beard
  • G Currie
  • G Krapohl

Unless something very unusual happens in terms of off-season conditioning
or injury, it's clear that Beard, Currie and Tillis will be starters. Iciss
did struggle offensively down the stretch, though her courageous performance
against Oklahoma showed that she could step up under the worst of
circumstances. The funny thing about this trio is that it's nearly
impossible to assign any of them a traditional basketball positional number.
Iciss Tillis is a "4" (power forward) in terms of her rebounding, size,
shotblocking and post-up ability, but moves like a guard and shoots like
a guard. Her handle is also impressive and sets her apart from other
post players. Alana Beard is a "2" or "3", but she loves posting up, passing,
handling the ball, blocking shots, pressuring the ball, etc. Her turnaround
jumper on the low block is a fearsome weapon and makes her effective even
against taller players. Monique Currie is also a "2" or a "3", but her
size (6-0), body and immense strength give her a lot of options on offense.
Her power makes her utterly fearless, driving to the basket on anyone. She
loves drawing contact, especially since she converts at the foul line. All
three can drive, pass, hit the jumper, block shots, sink threes, rebound and
play defense. Of course, all three differ in how well they do each of these
things, but there's a bit of overlap in skills. This is what makes Duke
difficult to defend, because once they get on a roll they can't be stopped.
Naturally, this is exactly how Coach G wants it: versatile players who
cause matchup problems while reading defenses for the best way to attack.

So with those three players as the center of Duke's offensive engine,
who else will start? There is a strong chance that both Michele Matyasovsky
and Vicki Krapohl will retain their starting jobs. After all, why disrupt
good chemistry? I think this may be true at the beginning of the year in
particular when the frosh are still learning. On the other hand, anyone
who's followed Coach G knows that she's quite willing to start freshmen
over upperclassmen if they're better players and fit in better with what the
team is trying to accomplish. And while both Mattie and Vicki did a fine
job last year in a tough situation, both will have to beat back considerable
competition in order to stay entrenched as starters.

In each of the past three years, at least one frosh player has broken
through to become a starter. In 2000, it was Sheana Mosch, who came in after
Peppi Browne went down. In 2001, Beard and Tillis started most of the games,
while Rometra Craig also got a few cracks. And last year, Monique Currie
and Wynter Whitley combined for a large number of starts. The interesting
thing about this frosh class is that while I'm not sure that any of the five
will be starters right away, I do think that all five have a legitimate shot
at playing time, something that hasn't necessarily been true of Duke's
bigger recruiting classes. For example, the legendary class of '97 included
Kira Orr and Tye Hall, but also had Mary Ann Puckett and Shaeeta Brown.
The class of '99 had little-used Takisha Jones while the class of 2003 had
Lello Gebisa. Even in Beard's class, Vicki Krapohl certainly wasn't ready
to play right away and Crystal White left in part because she couldn't hack
having Whitley around. But in the current group (if everyone is healthy),

I can see any or all of these players getting extended minutes at various
times in the year. And I can definitely see a couple of them breaking into
the starting lineup, especially since they were all recruited with specific
team weaknesses in mind.

But to start the year off, I would make only one change: replacing
Matyasovsky with Whitley. Wynter actually played rather well at times
last year, but it was clear that her confidence betrayed her midway
through the season. While I thought she had the body and the skills to
play at this level right away, a few bad games here and there started
planting seeds of doubt, to the point where teams left her wide open because
she was so hesitant to shoot. Currie didn't have these problems because
of her overwhelming confidence (though that sometimes got her in trouble
in terms of offensive fouls and bad shots), but the offense was starting
to become extremely stagnant with Wynter on the court. Eventually, the
bench started to agree with her and she loosened up a bit, becoming a
major factor. It all boiled down to a freshman looking like a world-beater
in one game and flustered in the next. I think a summer of hard work after
her learning year will add up to Wynter being ready to step in. She offers
the potential to become a polished post scorer as well as someone who can
step outside for the jumper or put the ball on the floor. Her power is a
nice balance for Tillis's finesse. I think that if she's ready to become a
part of the offense, she will start over Matyasovsky. If she's still
inconsistent, then a number of other scenarios could come into play.

As for Krapohl, I'm projecting her as the starter simply because of
her experience level and chemistry with the rest of the team. She knows
her role and plays it well. She does present certain limitations at
both ends of the floor, but offsets them with hustle and a great looking
shot. Foley, Howe and Harding will all be looking to start, but all three
will have prove that they can hit the three, protect the ball, earn the
respect of her teammates, play tough defense AND add another factor as
well. This could very well happen, but I'd say it's Vicki's job to lose.

Next up is my guess at the extended rotation:

  • F Matyasovsky
  • G Mosch
  • G Foley
  • F Smith
  • C Bass
  • G Harding
  • G Howe

OK, I will admit that simply listing the rest of the team is not a very
courageous attempt at trying to suss out the rest of the rotation, but
I really do think that every single player has a legitimate chance of getting
playing time next year. Speaking of which, while I state the obvious in
saying next year's team will be very different from this year's edition,
it's important to understand just how different it will be. For example,
the player who got the fewest number of minutes last year, Krista Gingrich,
still played an impressive 17 minutes per game. Everyone else played over
20 mpg except Krapohl, who got 19 mpg. This will obviously not be the
case next year when you nearly double the number of players on your team.
Everyone's minutes will go down, and that's not necessarily a bad thing
for Beard (33 mpg) and Tillis (30 mpg)--especially Tillis, who seemed to
break down a bit towards the end of the year. Say each of the new frosh
averages 10 mpg. That's 50 mpg that needs to be divvied up. Subtract
Krista's 17 and that's 33 minutes. Beard, Tillis and Currie will lose
fewer minutes than most, meaning that the other four players will lose
anywhere from 5-8 minutes a game.

That is all obviously pure conjecture, because not everyone will deserve
the same amount of playing time, and one never knows how quickly a frosh
will develop. It really can take a full year in college before a player
understands what it takes to succeed at this level. This is why I think
this Duke squad has a lot of potential: the team has already achieved a
lot of success and is now dominated by upperclassmen. The frosh will be
there to boost the team and fill in needs here and there, but will not
be depended upon for steady production. But if they earn bigger roles,
then they will get them, especially since Coach G has stated that she
wants to make her players happy and give them all a chance to play. She
had previously taken some lesser recruits to fill out her roster with
the possibility that they might develop along the way. Sometimes this
has worked out exactly as planned (Lauren Rice, Rochelle Parent), and
sometimes it hasn't (Lello Gebisa, Juanita Hepburn). But she's found of
late that even minor recruits aren't content to sit on the bench, so
she's taken on a new philosophy of recruiting and coaching. It'll be
interesting to see this in action next year with a 12-woman roster.

Clearly, the first two players off the bench will be Mosch and Matyasovsky.
I still think Mattie had an excellent chance of starting at some point
during the year, especially if she provides a more aggressive presence on
offense and rebounds better. There's no arguing with her shooting touch
or ball movement, nor with the fact that she makes the team better. I
can also see her on the floor in the clutch and in tournament situations,
simply because she's been there and knows what to do. Her versatility is
her best asset, and if she can continue to exploit this in new ways, she

may well stay at her career average of 20 mpg. While I have no doubts as
to what Michele will bring to the table, I am a bit more curious about
Sheana. Which Mosch will we see right away? The tentative one who doesn't
know quite how to fit in, or the aggressive veteran who fires up her
teammates and gets to the line on a regular basis? Sheana also has an
outside chance of starting if Currie regresses for some reason and Mosch
is on fire. But I think we'll see her as the primary perimeter reserve,
though she'll also have plenty of competition in that area. In her
favor are her experience, her leadership qualties (as captain, this will
give her both the added responsibility of mentoring the young players
and the added respect of that role), and her ability to penetrate. She's
still the best finisher on the team until someone else proves otherwise.
Like Mattie, I think we'll see more of her in big games and in clutch
situations, though I think her minutes will shrink a little. Unless
either Mattie or Mosch regress, both will probably stay at right around
20 mpg.

So Duke's top 7 is a very experienced bunch. The question that remains
is exactly how deep Duke will go. The player who will have the best
chance of getting big minutes right away is Lindsey Harding. A pure point
who is quite athletic, she will bring a very different look to the team.

With Krista Gingrich gone, point is suddenly a very important position to
fill, and Lindsey will have the opportunity to play 15-20 minutes--if
she does the job. What might set her apart from Krapohl is her ability
to penetrate. If she can do this and set up her teammates ala Beard,
then it'll be tough to keep her off the floor. Of course, she'll have to
prove that she can stick the jumper. If she's a liability from the
perimeter, that could hurt her playing time.

While Harding has the best chance to get big minutes right away, I
think that the players who will make the biggest overall impact are Mistie
Bass and Jessica Foley. I think Bass actually has a chance to start
because of her size, strength and rebounding ability. She's a true low-post
scorer who can also pass. She lacks Whitley's more versatile game and
experience, but is more powerful. The questions surrounding her will be
her ability to stay out of foul trouble, adjust to the quicker athletes
at this level, and have confidence in her offense. There's no question
that she's ready physically; we'll see if she's ready mentally. Foley
may well turn out to be the best player in the class, especially on offense.
She has great range, can fill either guard position and has played at a
high level for quite some time. Her international experience will be a
big boost for her. The only problem is that she has Mosch ahead of her
in the rotation, not to mention the starting duo of Beard & Currie. Still,
if she can come in and immediately start knocking down threes while playing
Duke-style defense, it will be very difficult to keep her out of the
rotation.

That leaves Caitlin Howe and Brooke Smith. Howe is a big question mark
because of her knee. How quickly will she be able to come out and play,
and how effective will she be? Everyone knows she can shoot; what else
will she be able to do for the team? Will she be able to move quickly
enough to defend? No one really knows at this point, but it'll be
interesting to follow. Smith is a completely different case. The slender
forward used an unorthodox style to make a big impact in postseason
all-star games, and her ability to run the floor automatically puts her
in good stead at Duke. But the real question is how she'll adjust to the
more physical college game, especially when she goes up against more
powerful players. I especially wonder about her ability to rebound in
traffic and block out, though she has tremendous potential as an offensive
rebounder. She is an effective offensive player, scoring with either hand
on hooks and skilled in a number of post moves. She could become an
immediate contributor or might struggle to fit in--it's hard to say right
now. Brooke has unique skills and could offer some very different looks
for Duke.

Along those lines, I think that's what the frosh class will offer more
than anything: the opportunity to provide some different looks. Duke could
put out a lineup of Bass, Whitley, Currie, Mosch and Harding if they wanted
an extremely physical team that didn't mind contact. Or if they wanted
to run, how about Tillis, Smith, Currie, Beard and Harding? Imagine that
group in transition. A group of three point specialists might include
Tillis, Whitley, Foley, Howe and Krapohl, while a team that could really
penetrate might have Beard, Currie, Whitley, Harding and Mosch. Beyond
the different lineups that Duke might use, foul trouble suddenly becomes
a dilemma of the past. Tillis, Whitley and Matyasovsky in particular
will be relieved to have two players ready to go right behind them. Most
of Duke's players had to play with four fouls at various points last year,
and there's no question that it hurt their defensive intensity. This
means that Duke will be able to take more chances on defense, and also
go harder for longer periods of time since there will be someone ready to
step in once a player gets tired. And of course, on those occasions when
Duke is blowing a team out, the Devils will finally have some younger
players to sub in instead of being forced to go with the group that had been
playing the whole game. You may also finally see some more fullcourt
pressure, the kind Coach G has been wanting to use basically her entire
career but has never had quite the proper set of personnel to do it.
The upperclassmen will also be good for the frosh, since they'll be
practicing against them every day. While the team often practices against
men, it will be helpful for the younger players to play against top-notch
women as well.

Next year's team will have a lot of expectations. The team has won
three straight ACC titles and will be favored to win a fourth. They
will be expected to be a top 5 team and a Final Four participant. Alana
Beard will be one of the favorites for National Player of the Year. Iciss
Tillis and Monique Currie will both be All-America candidates. The squad
has no noticeable flaws at this point, with depth, size and ballhandling
all being adequately addressed by this recruiting class. So for the
team's question marks, I'll turn to the intangibles: desire, chemistry
and focus. Of the three, chemistry is the biggest concern. Will the
new players fit in with such a tight-knit group? Will the veterans give
the rookies a fair shake and provide support and mentorship? How will
the veterans react to the prospect of possible reduced minutes, and how
will the frosh respond to potentially minimal playing time in their first
year? I'm not too worried about the team's desire to win with Beard around,
especially after the way the season ended. And while there will be a lot
of hoopla surrounding the squad, the media crush still isn't as overwhelming
as it is in men's basketball. So I'm not too worried about focus. The
big key for Coach G will be to get everyone to accept their roles the way
she did last year, and for the players to trust the coach. Gail has a group
she knows she can count on, a group that wanted to be here in no uncertain
terms. This is a team that demanded excellence of themselves and was
willing to work hard. Hopefully they can continue on in the same vein
while sharing these values with their new teammates.
Lastly, here a few soundbite stories to follow as the season goes on for
each player:

  • Will Alana Beard continue to make the leap into all-time greatness?
  • Will Iciss Tillis become a consistently great player?
  • Will Monique Currie improve her perimeter game?
  • Can Vicki Krapohl hold on to the starting point guard job?
  • Is Wynter Whitley ready to become a star?
  • Will Sheana Mosch be a role player or a star?
  • Will Michele Matyasovsky fend off the many competitors for her starting job?
  • Can Caitlin Howe come back from her serious knee injury?
  • How quickly will Jessica Foley be able to adjust to the American level of
    athleticism in women's college basketball?
  • Is Lindsey Harding ready to become the leading playmaker?
  • Can Mistie Bass handle the quickness level of women's college basketball?
  • Can Brooke Smith handle the physical play at this level?

by Rob Clough