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Duke Women's Basketball - The Year in Review, Part III & IV

III. A Look At The Class Of 2007

** Alison Bales 6-7 C Dayton, OH (Beavercreek)

Accolades: WBCA All-America
McDonald's All-America
USA Today 3rd Team All-America (2003)
Parade All-America 1st Team (2003)
Parade All-America 3rd Team (2002)
AP Div I Co-Player of the Year (2003)
AP Div I All-State First Team (2001, 2002, 2003)
Nike All-America Camp (2001, 2002)
SSN Sophomore of the Year (2001)
SSN Junior All-America (2002)
USA Today All-America (2001, 2002)
Street & Smith All-America 4th Team (2001, 2002)
USA Basketball Youth Development Festival North Team
AAU 16 & Under All-America (2002)
OGBM Dream Team (2002, 2003)
Div I Area Player of the Year (2002)

Stats: 17 ppg, 10 rpg, 5.4 bpg, 62% FG (2002)
17.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 5.5 bpg, 4 apg (2003)

The Scoop: Having Alison Bales on the roster will be a bit of something
old, something new. That's because her game somewhat resembles Michele
Van Gorp's, and will allow Coach G to use some of the sets that were so
successful in the late 90's. Ali is incredibly tall, but not a toothpick
like Lello Gebisa was. In fact, she has shed a number of pounds to get
down to her current weight. As a result, she has gained speed, quickness
and stamina. More important than her size are her skills, which are
formidable. She can hit the open three, which makes her perfect for
inverting post and perimeter players. I can see her at the top of the key
with the ball, passing to cutters who have free reign in a suddenly open
lane. I can see her in the same spot as the guards try to post up and
sometimes pass out to her for a wide-open shot. Bales is a skilled
passer, which will make her valuable for fighting double-teams and keeping
the offense flowing. Her height advantage helps her passing, giving her a
clearer view of the court. Most importantly, she is one of the greatest
shotblockers I have ever seen.

Her size is part of that formula, of course. Anyone brave enough to
attack her on the ball has to really body her up to draw a foul or shoot
with a lot of arch on the shot, because otherwise it's coming back. What
really makes her a remarkable defender is her weakside shotblocking.
Though she's not that quick, her ability to see the floor keeps her a step
ahead of her opponents, allowing her to recover in time to block the shot.
Really, the best way to deal with her is to take her outside and either
shoot or use a headfake to drive by her. There are really only a few elite
players with those sorts of inside/outside skills.

Alison will have to adjust to a couple of things right away. First off,
she will be in rehab for a knee injury (not an ACL tear) from May until
mid-August or so. She can do some forms of exercise in the interim, but
can't play ball and must be kind to her knee. This will mean that she'll
be behind in Duke's rigorous conditioning program. Secondly, I think some
of the things that slowed down Mistie Bass at times will also affect Ali.
The speed of the game at the college level combined with its level of
physicality will come as a great shock. Bales may struggle against teams
that have size, strength and elite athletes. Guarding players like
Barbara Turner and Stacy Stephens in the post or Ann Strother on the
perimeter will be quite a chore for her. Third, stamina will likely be a
factor, especially for a player who is perhaps more used to playing in a
halfcourt system. The good news is that Alison's passing ability, court
vision and defensive instincts, along with her natural size, will all be
big plusses in making that adjustment. How quickly she adjusts will
remain to be seen, but I do think that she'll make an impact this year.

Alison knows all about winning championships, having won two Ohio
Division I state titles. This is in an era when Ohio has produced some
of the best talent in the country. Indeed, she had to face off against
future teammate Hunter in the state semifinals. I saw her play in the
McDonald's All-America game, and she had some truly impressive moments.
In a game where players tend to step aside defensively, Bales didn't back
down. Tiffany Jackson, one of the best post players in the country and a
former Duke target, went to the basket against Bales. Bales blocked her
and Jackson got the ball back and tried again. Same result. Tried again.
Another shot sent back. After the fourth block, one of Bales' teammates
finally got the rebound. On another possession, Bales came over from the
weak side to block a shot from behind, utterly startling Lauren Ervin,
another elite post player. Being an all-star game, she didn't get a
chance to shoot very much, hitting a couple of garbage baskets here and
there. One senses that her defense will be ahead of her offense in the
early going, especially as she adjusts to the speed of the game.

Bales has the size, skills and demeanor to significantly contribute as a
frosh. She will be the slowest member of the team and may not fit in well
with every combination of players on the floor. Bales is not a great
athlete and won't be dazzling the crowds with her leaping ability.
However, she's also a player who understands her limitations and has
worked hard to improve her shortcomings. She also is a winner and knows
what it takes to win at a very high level. At Duke, she won't have to
worry about carrying the team on offense. Instead, she has to stick to
her role (likely to be defense, shotblocking, passing and rebounding) and
slowly work to expand on it as her career unfolds. Her size and skills
will mean a lot of playing time when Duke is forced into a halfcourt style
of play, and it will be up to her to adjust to both the pace and roughness
of the college game. Watching her develop will indeed be intriguing.

** Brittany Hunter 6-4 F Columbus, OH (Brookhaven)

Accolades: Parade Player of the Year (2003)
WBCA All-America
McDonald's All-America
USA Today 1st Team All-America (2003)
Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year (2003)
Ohio Miss Basketball (2003)
AP Div I Co-Player of the Year (2003)
AP Div I All-State 1st Team (2002, 2003)
AP Div I All-State 2nd Team (2001)
Parade All-America 1st Team (2003)
Parade All-America 3rd Team (2002)
USA Today Junior All-America (2002)
Street & Smith All-America 1st Team (2002)
Street & Smith All-America HM (2001)
Nike All-America Camp (2001, 2002)
Student Sports Sophomore All-America (2001)
USA Basketball Youth Development Festival North Team
OGBM Dream Team (2002, 2003)
All-Metro 1st Team
3-time AAU National Champion
2-time State Champion Div I

Stats: 19.6 ppg, 14 rpg, 4 spg, 3.5 apg (2002)
23.4 ppg, 17.6 rpg, 5 bpg, 2 spg, 54% FG (2003)

The Scoop: The most exciting thing about Brittany Hunter is that no one
knows her true potential as a basketball player. One thing is certain:
the harder she has worked at it, the better she has become. She went from
being a top 50-type player in some rankings to the consensus #1 player in
her entire class. She did it by not only outperforming her peers at the
US Olympic Festival, but by coming up with clutch plays in close wins.
She led a team missing a key player to the Ohio Division I state
semifinals before falling to her future teammate's squad. Through it all,
she has retained a sense of humility and humor, showing rare maturity in
saying that her choice of Duke was as much about the future as it was
about the present.

As I have mentioned throughout this report, Duke was absent a number of
key pieces that could have meant winning a national title, but the team
still went to the Final Four without these pieces. Some of them were
known quantities that were missing, like Monique Currie and her aggressive
style of ball. There was Caitlin Howe, whose three point touch Duke
needed so much at times. Then there was Wynter Whitley, who was affected
so deeply by her personal loss. In Brittany Hunter, Duke has a brand new
kind of player, and she could very well be the missing piece of the
puzzle. What kind of player has traditionally given Duke fits over the
years? Strong but quick post players, of course. Players who can keep up
with the Tillises of the world and then bump them out of position. This
describes Brittany to a T. She is fast, quick, and incredibly aggressive.
Hunter is a tremendous rebounder, especially at the offensive end. While
she doesn't have tremendous range on her jumper as of yet, she loves
pulling up from 10' away and just rising above her opponents. She can
dunk, though she hasn't yet done it during a game. In short, Brittany's
skills and abilities complement those of her teammates, with surprisingly
little overlap. Because of this, I anticipate her playing early and

Having seen her play but once, in the McDonald's All-America game, her
power and quickness were on obvious display. Her shooting touch was not,
though it was clear that she was rushing her shots. Still, her elevation
and form showed that her pull-up jumper near the basket will be her
bread-and-butter. Hunter will team with Currie to form a bruising front
line that doesn't mind going hard to the basket and heading to the foul
line. That will complement the more perimeter-oriented Iciss Tillis
perfectly. Brittany has a thirst for winning, which is why she went to a
team that already had so many good players. As such, she will understand
her role early on, though it will be difficult to be the third or fourth
option on offense. But when you have Beard, Tillis and Currie out there,
it makes sense. Still, she will be a formidable offensive presence out
there, especially around the basket.

While I can easily project Brittany as a starter, there are a few areas
that she'll need to work on. First and foremost are passing and
ballhandling. Hunter will mostly work in the post (and occasionally on
the wing), so she doesn't exactly need to have Alana's handle, but in a
motion offense, you need to be able to handle the ball somewhat. In
addition, passing is a skill that Brittany has only recently had any
reason to develop, simply because she hasn't always played with teammates
who could shoot once she passed them the ball. The sooner she's able to
achieve a certain level of proficiency in those areas, the sooner she'll
be able to make a big impact at the offensive end. If she can pass, it
will be impossible to double-team her. The other crucial area for Hunter
will be defense. Brittany's timing and leaping ability mean that she can
easily block a lot of shots, but she also has to prove that she can shut
down her opposite number with her footwork. As the old hoops mantra goes,
good defense is played with the feet, not the hands.

One area where I don't think Brittany will struggle is rebounding. Her
timing, quickness and power will make her tough to block out. I expect
her to live at the foul line after she's fouled getting offensive
rebounds. This one factor alone could be huge for a Duke team that
struggles when they lose the rebounding battle. A Hunter who develops in
the other areas I mentioned to match her rebounding ability could be one
of the best freshmen in the country. Expect to see Brittany get all the
minutes she can handle right away.

IV. Preliminary Season Preview

One of Duke's problems in 2003 was that they became too predictable on
offense. I think this had more to do with personnel than with coaching
decisions, but the post-UConn starting lineup was one designed for
defensive dominance, not offensive flexibility. That flexibility, which
has long been a hallmark of Duke's offense, simply didn't correspond to
the available players. Of course, knowing Duke's weaknesses and being
able to exploit them were two different things, and while Duke's offensive
problems made for some tight NCAA tournament games, it didn't catch up
with them until they met a team with the talent, strength, skill and power
to exploit it.

Let's go back to the basics of Coach G's offense. From the very
beginning, she has favored hard-nosed guards who can post up and versatile
post players who can shoot. She then loved to invert the posts and
guards, pulling the posts out of the lane and putting them at the three
point line and moving the guards down into the low blocks. Think of Jen
Scanlon and Ali Day as the earliest version of this attack. She did the
same thing with Nicole Erickson and Michele Van Gorp in 1999. Coach G
would still leave one post behind to get rebounds and perhaps take a
high-low pass--this would usually be a Zeki Blanding, Tye Hall or Payton
Black. When the class of 1999 left, Duke had no real post players
remaining. So she went to a five-out motion system, running post and
perimeter players around, trying to create mismatches and open shots.
With the arrival of Beard and Tillis, she had the ultimate example of
inverting players, because Beard is absolutely deadly on the blocks and
Tillis is a superior perimeter player.

This year's team was supposed to run in much the same way. Tillis would
pop between perimeter and post, as would Beard. Currie was the x-factor,
a player who could take you off the dribble like Beard, go hard to the
boards and even hit a jumper. Her strength is what separated her from the
other two, allowing her to make plays with confidence. Everyone else on
the team would react based on what those three were doing. With Krapohl
ready to spot up and shoot and Matyasovsky constantly in motion, this was
a very tough lineup to defend. While first sub Wynter Whitley was a
defensive specialist, her ability to post up, drive and hit the three made
her a perfect fit for a motion system.

With Currie out, defending Duke became a lot easier, even with the
presence of Beard and Tillis. One could see teams using the same plan
against Duke, game after game. How successful it was depended on talent
level and overall coaching, but there's no question that using it slowed
Duke down, especially on offense. This approach could be boiled down to
four factors. First, prevent transition baskets by sending 1 or 2 players
back immediately after a miss. You might lose out on some offensive
rebounds, but you would otherwise be killed by Duke's transition game.
Second, attack Duke off the dribble and with simple entry passes. Don't
overpass or they would convert it into a turnover. Third, in the
halfcourt, bump Duke's cutters and overplay in the post. None of Duke's
shooters could create their own shots on a regular basis, so simply
staying at home would take care of that. Don't allow Duke to go
inside-out or use crosscourt passes to find open shooters. Lastly, a
coach had to choose: stop Beard or stop everyone else. No one will stop
Beard one-on-one and the only way to slow her down is with a zone.
Alternately, keeping the ball out of her hands as much as possible and
letting the others beat you is a good option.

Coach G never found a way to counter #3 in particular. She couldn't
really run motion with players like Bass in there, but didn't seem to have
the right plays to get her post players open. This was a function of
having young players who were still feeling their way around in the post,
but it was also a slight mismatch of styles (motion vs a more structured
offense). When Duke actually faced a team that was quick, strong and deep
enough to stop their transition game, take care of the ball and stymie
them in the halfcourt, Beard became the bailout. Both Coach G and Alana
were reluctant to have Alana simply attack by herself, because it was a
sign that Duke had pretty much run out of other answers. When Duke had a
number of players step up on the scoring end, they were close to
unbeatable. When they didn't, things got dicey.

How will things change in 2004? We all know what Beard can do already.
The frightening thing about her is that she has actually improved
significantly on a year-to-year basis, even as her role on the team has
changed. She did a great job of picking her spots on when to completely
take over a game and when to let the game come to her. With a stronger
front line, I'd like to see Alana stay in the backcourt a bit more and
continue to work on her jumper.

When you really think closely about the lineup that finished up in the
Final Four, there really wasn't a post player to be found in it. Harding,
Krapohl and Beard were all guards. Tillis is 6-4 but has always been more
comfortable on the wing. Same goes for Michele Matyasovsky, a 6-1 player
whose brains and versatility held together the post for much of her
career, even though she's a natural wing. Duke really had a 5 guard
lineup, the strongest and most physical of whom was the 5-11 Beard. Is it
any wonder that teams tried their hardest to beat Duke up inside? In
order for Duke to take the final step and win the national title, there
must be a real commitment to post play.

Now, I'm not suggesting reverting to a standard halfcourt game and
slowing things down. Rather, I'm suggesting that Duke should add muscle
to their repetoire and use power as well as finesse. With Brittany Hunter
on the team, Duke will have a player who represents the best of both
worlds for the first time. Of course, regaining the services of Monique
Currie means having a guard who also combines power and speed. That's why
I'm advocating a starting lineup that features Beard, Tillis, Currie,
Hunter and Lindsey Harding. There will be no starting five in America
that will be quicker or more athletic. All five players are excellent
rebounders, with Currie & Hunter specializing in offensive boards.
Everyone in that lineup can finish fast breaks. Beard, Harding and Currie
can all penetrate and either finish or get to the line. Beard and Tillis
can both get their own shot whenever they want. Beard, Tillis and Harding
are all excellent defenders. Hunter and Currie are both very strong. This
team would have a makeup very similar to the defensive juggernaut that
shut down so many teams with the added bonus of more offensive potential.
This lineup would have the potential to not only out-quick their foes, but
to overwhelm them physically as well.

Of course, the flaw in this lineup is obvious: shooting. By choosing to
take Vicki Krapohl out of the starting lineup, this team will face zones
and assorted junk defenses in an effort to slow it down. Having Hunter or
inserting Mistie Bass to go over the top of the zone would be one option
if a team leaves the middle open. If a team dares Duke to fire away, they
do have Tillis (one of the team's best shooters) as an option, especially
if she gets to play more on the wing. What this really means is that
Beard and Currie have to improve their perimeter shooting. In Beard's
case, it's pretty good (especially from 15' and in), but it'd be nice to
see them shoot at least break-even from three (33%) and preferably around
36%. If Hunter and Bass establish themselves as true post threats to
balance out the penetration of Beard & Currie and the shooting of Tillis,
then that will give Duke's guards even more of a chance to get good looks
at the basket when confronted with a zone.

In theory, Coach G will have a lot of options to work with, and how she
mixes and matches lineups will be crucial to how far Duke goes. First and
foremost, how Duke uses Mistie Bass will be a big part of the puzzle.
Mistie has the potential to be a big-time scorer but must expand her moves
and skill set. One thing to keep an eye on is how well she connects with
Hunter. If those two can complement each other inside, Duke could bring
some serious muscle to bear. I expect Mistie to be the first post player
off the bench.

Krapohl may not start, but she will still receive considerable playing
time and may well wind up finishing some games, in a role similar to
Sheana Mosch and Krista Gingrich the last couple of years. Against some
teams, Vicki's size was a liability. She's also not as quick as the
blur-like Harding on defense. What she will offer the team is her sweet
shooting stroke, experience, and toughness. Look for her to hit many a
clutch three next year. Again, while she may not start, I don't think her
minutes will decrease all that much. Also off the bench will be Foley,
who will be another key player. If she can improve on her weak areas
(ballhandling, strength, on-ball defense), she could be one of the top
bench players in the country. With her size, shooting and passing, Jess
is poised to be Duke's top perimeter reserve.

Those are the players that I expect to see in the immediate 8-player
lineup, but Coach G has never been shy about playing more if they can help
the team. Wynter Whitley will be another player to watch. If she can
regain the form she had as a frosh and improve on that, she will be a
big-time contributor. Her versatility is remarkable, but her true calling
card is her commitment to hard-nosed defense. She is the best returning
post defender and her experience will be important for the team's younger
players. A consistent year from Wynter alone could do amazing things for
this team. Alison Bales has a promising future ahead of her at Duke,
especially at the defensive end. Recovering from her injury is going to
put her a bit behind the other players at first, and as a result she may
have trouble cracking the rotation. She can be such a force that it will
be hard to keep her out of games for long, especially against opponents
with powerful post games. Her knack for blocking shots will get her
some minutes; how she develops from there will determine the rest.
Lastly, we have Caitlin Howe. When healthy, she is someone whom you want
on the court as much as possible because of her shooting and toughness.
At this point, she may not play until midseason, if that. There is no
player that I'm rooting for harder than Caitlin, because I know she will
treasure every second spent out on the court once she's healthy again.

Duke will still be Duke most of the time. They will play pressure
defense in order to force turnovers for easy layups. They will stay in
motion in order to hit cutters. Guards will post up; post players will
take jumpers. It'll be interesting to see what kind of senior year Tillis
has. She's taken some heat for not putting up big numbers in certain key
games, but the load she's shouldered as the team's primary rebounder for
the past couple of years really took a toll on her. Having Hunter and
Currie around could really open up her game, especially off the dribble.
Watch for Duke to try a lot more trapping this year now that they really
have the personnel and experience to do so. Duke's traps were only
occasionally successful last year as the team relied on more traditional
on-ball pressure to force turnovers. Chemistry will be another key, one
aided by the fact that the team only has to integrate two new players into
the lineup. Once again, Duke has a short bench with just 11 players, 10
of them healthy and likely to play. Don't be surprised to see Coach G use
all ten players on a regular basis.

There was a lot of disappointment on the part of the team for not
winning it all. They had a real shot at the title last year but couldn't
overcome their flaws and injuries. This year, the team has shored up a
number of weakness and will play against some of the best teams in the
country to prepare for the tournament. UConn (on the road), Tennessee (in
Cameron), Texas, and Purdue are all on the slate, each of them expected to
be a top ten team, if not top five. Throw in a very good Auburn squad
(they won the WNIT last year), several improved ACC teams (FSU and
Virginia in particular) and ever-lingering arch-rival UNC, and you'll have
Duke's best schedule ever and one of the better ones in the country. Duke
may wind up with more losses next year, but I think they'll be a better
team by the time the NCAA Tournament rolls around. There are a lot of
questions to be answered by the young players that could ultimately
determine just how far the team will go, but it's nice to have a player
who is the answer to virtually anything and everything: Alana Beard.
Seeing her jersey retired will be the ultimate sign of respect for a
program-changing player, and I'm glad I have had the privilege of watching
her compete.