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A Few Comments On Duke-UConn

Duke-UConn is coming up this Saturday at 2:00pm EST, airing on CBS. UConn, of course
is the #1 team in the country and has won the last couple of NCAA titles.
In fact, if not for a bad shooting day from Diana Taurasi as a frosh, the
Huskies might be a four-time defending national champion. That's how
dominant this program has been of late, and it's thanks to the recruiting
& coach ability of Geno Auriemma and the tough-as-nails play of Taurasi.
In the Coach G era, Duke has beaten every significant national power at
least once...with the exception of UConn. The Huskies demolished the
future NCAA finalists in the fall of '98 and then beat #1 Duke in Cameron
last year in a memorable game. Let's take a closer look as to why UConn
is so tough to beat.

First off, Geno is as good at diagnosing and attacking a foe's
weaknesses as anyone in the country. The way he picked apart Duke's
weaknesses last year was quite telling. First of all, in dealing with
Alana Beard, he made her into a jump shooter. Whenever Alana tried to go
left, she had gritty defender Ashley Battle in her face, forcing her to
take contested shots. Battle sagged off whenever Alana was further than
15' or so away from the basket, and UConn conceded those shots...and it
didn't hurt them. It goes without saying that if Alana gets hot from the
perimeter, Duke's chances of winning are excellent.

Second, Duke last year was still primarily a finesse team. To that end,
he deployed his group of big, strong and yet quick post players against
Iciss Tillis and Mistie Bass. The quite underrated Jessica Moore outran
Mistie Bass in transition on more than one occasion. Moore shut her down
defensively as well, but it was her dominance on the other end that forced
Coach G to yank her and put in Wynter Whitley. Barbara Turner is only
around 6-0, but she is as tough and powerful as they come. Moore is
avearging 10.1 ppg and 6.1 rpg, while Turner is putting up 13.9 and 5.2.
The third member of that trio was Willnett Crocket, who is recovering from
injury. She burned Duke last year with her quickness and strength, and
was one of several players that pushed around Iciss Tillis. Iciss did not
respond that well and another key part of Duke's offense was taken away.

One can see a pattern here: defensively, UConn is excellent at
disrupting another team's comfort zones. Forced out of their normal
positions down low, Duke was never able to establish any kind of post
game. Beard was reluctant to simply take over the game, but no one else
was putting up points. Alana nearly single-handedly brought her team
back, with enormous contributions on defense from Whitley and on offense
from Lindsey Harding, who is quicker than anyone UConn can put on the
floor. Against the players I just mentioned, I would imagine UConn's
strategy will be similar. The sooner they can neutralize Iciss Tillis,
the quicker they can put the game away. If Iciss stands up to the
pressure and finds ways to score, Duke's chances improve greatly.

Defensively, UConn is extremely hard to guard because of their balance.
While I still maintain that Beard is overall a better player than Taurasi
(she's quicker, a better slasher, a much better defender and underrated as
a playmaker), there is no great offensive force in college basketball than
Diana. To be quite honest, her numbers were not as impressive as Beard's
last year overall, attributable in part to a bad wheel. Now that she's
fully healthy, Taurasi is putting up monster stats. She's hit 47% of her
threes (22 of 'em), averages over 5 assists per game to just 2 turnovers,
gets 4 rpg and around 2 steals and a block. Beyond the numbers, there is
no player I'd rather give the ball to in crunch time than Taurasi. No
matter what the situation, she finds a way to either score or find the
open player. She's as clutch as they come, and is so hard to guard
because she has unlimited range, can post up virtually anyone and gets to
the foul line. Taurasi won't dazzle you with her first step, but she
always gets the job done. Alana actually did a pretty good job on her
last year in Cameron, stripping her of the ball a couple of times.
Taurasi aside, Duke's biggest challenge will be to find a way to stop Ann
Strother. The 6-2 wing can rebound (3.7 per game this year), is a fine
shooter (40% from three) and a general matchup problem. Turner will get
plenty of looks inside as she tries to power up, though watch for her to
take the three if she's open. Moore doesn't get a lot of touches (about 8
shots a game) but will convert if she gets it. Battle is the team's
slasher and defensive specialist. She won't start, but expect her to be
in early and often to stop Beard. Conlon is a superb role player who is
hitting 48% of her shots and is second on the team in assists. Think of
her as a higher-end Vicki Krapohl and you'll get the picture.

Beyond that group, and the return of Crockett, UConn doesn't run that
deep. Frosh Liz Sherwood has battled injury problems of her own but has
done reasonably well in 11 mpg (4.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg). Veterans Ashley and
Morgan Valley are solid players, with Morgan likely to see minutes
against Duke. The Huskies were hurt by guard Nicole Wolff going down
with a torn ACL. This leads to my first key of the game: foul trouble.
Whichever team is more aggressive and finds a way to get the other team
out of position will win the foul trouble war. If Tillis or Bass pick up
two quick fouls, that will definitely set a negative tone--this is what
happened in the Hampton game. On the other hand, if Duke can get one of
Taurasi, Strother or Turner on the bench right away, UConn won't have all
of their weapons on the floor.

The second big key is the play of Monique Currie and Brittany Hunter.
Both returning from injury, the duo definitely forms the "badass" wing of
the team. Beard missed Currie's aggressiveness last year year immensely.
Mo has improved enormously since starting her season and is attacking the
basket like in the good 'ol days. Currie is now showing signs of an
improved perimeter game, though UConn will be the ultimate test. The
Huskies will not be able to intimidate her with physical play and I'm not
sure they have anyone other than Battle who can guard her one-on-one,
though I'm sure Geno will rotate different players to her. I suspect that
she'll get the Alana treatment: sag off of her and cut off the drive, forcing her to take jumpers. Mo can absolutely step up from 16' and knock
that shot down, and will need to prove that on Saturday.

With regard to Hunter, Brittany is the most physical player I've ever
seen in a Duke uniform. There's a reason why Geno was so petulant when he
whiffed on her in the recruiting battles, and that's because she is the
kind of quick, powerful and physical player that he adores. She fears no
one and won't be pushed around. She will have to watch her fouls from the
outset, as I suspect the Huskies will try to bait her into fouling. All
she has to do is play her game: post up hard, go to the boards strong,
keep your feet on defense. Duke will generally have a height advantage
and they need to use it. Generally speaking, the physical toughness of
Currie and Hunter give Duke a look that UConn hasn't seen before. Brit
will have to deal with a crowd that will not be happy with her choice of
college--that will test her mental toughness.

The Huskies have played a solid but not spectacular schedule thus far.
They beat FSU and NC State rather convincingly, as well as St Joseph's,
Pepperdine, Southern Cal and Arizona State. All solid programs, but none
in the top 25. Against this lineup, the Huskies have been a good but not
great rebounding team--this is the third key. UConn averages 11 offensive
rebounds a game. Duke must control the boards. The Huskies were able to
get out and run last year when Duke was forced into taking jumpers. UConn
would grab the rebound and flat-out beat Duke to the basket every time.
If the Devils can minimize this, they will be able to slow the Huskies
down.

While UConn hasn't played a great schedule as of yet, I put that aside
as a factor. This team knows what it's doing no matter what the opponent.
The general feeling around that program is that they've finally started to
click properly--perfect timing for playing Duke! Meanwhile, Duke finally
has all 13 players back on the active roster once again. The Duke team
you will see this Saturday is far from a finished product, but one that
should get better as the season progresses and the bench players can be
integrated.

In a bit of trivia, UConn can break the all-time home-winning streak in
women's college hoops if they go to 70 on Friday. Duke will try to
protect a 20-game road winning streak (not counting neutral sites).
Playing at home will be an enormous benefit for UConn, which is used to
big time games like this one.

On the Duke side of things, Mo Currie will likely wind up guarding
Strother, giving up 2". She'll have to body her up and try to take
Strother off the dribble. Ali Bales could provide some minutes iff Bass
and Tillis both have early foul trouble. I don't think Caitlin Howe and
Wynter Whitley are ready to help much yet, though if Duke is ice cold from
the field, they might turn to Cait. Her form is purer than pure, uncut
funk. Jess Foley could be another x-factor. I'm not sure whom she can
guard on that team other than Conlon. It'll be interesting to see what
choices Coach G makes on defense and how quickly she adjusts to what UConn
is doing.

The bottom line, as Coach G noted, is that it's just one regular season
game. Winning or losing it doesn't even count in conference standings. Both teams will learn a lot about themselves very quickly and will have a
chance to figure out what's wrong and what's right. The game may have
some bearing on national player of the year voting, but the simple fact
that it's on national TV helps the game overall. This is Duke's first
appearance on national TV that wasn't cable, another milestone for a
program that is still growing. All that said, beating UConn would be an
enormous boost if for no other reason that it proves that it can be done.