Start with eight returnees, a new coach and a largely new staff. Add a trio of talented freshmen and the return of an injured player. Throw in a series of crucial injuries, take an exhausting business trip to the Virgin Islands, and deal with Thanksgiving, final exams, Christmas, and New Year's.The result says, Duke coach Joanne McCallie, is the "December Dog Days," a confusing, disjointed transitional period, where lessons are learned and roles are defined. And the 2007-'08 Duke team had lots of roles to define. McCallie met with local media Thursday to discuss where her team is, how it got there, and where it goes from here.
Like any new coach, McCallie and her players had an extended getting-to-know-you-period, one which she freely acknowledges is still ongoing. Practices and training sessions are important in this process, as are off-court opportunities.
But at some point, you have to see what your players can do in games, what combinations work, what strategies need to be tweaked. Duke didn't use the same starting lineup in consecutive games this season until games nine and ten. Injuries to Wanisha Smith, Abby Waner, and Krystal Thomas forced some of the experimentation but most of its was planned. "In the transition period, you give more chances to people," says McCallie. "You spread the minutes out. Every young lady on our team has had an opportunity to play. We got to know each other." Experimenting with lineups, while playing "an extremely challenging" schedule, with "a lot of different adversities" led to an uncharacteristic three-game losing streak, which Duke has followed with its current seven-games-and-counting winning streak.
The days of the 12-player rotation are over. Duke opened its ACC season Saturday at Miami, winning 84-72. Bridgette Mitchell and Brittany Mitch didn't get off the bench, while Emily Waner played only two minutes. Coach P feels "10, 11, 12 cannot play. We need more continuity." With everyone healthy, McCallie seems to have settled on a starting lineup of Chante Black and Joy Cheek inside, Smith and Waner on the wings, and Jasmine Thomas at the point.
Duke wants balance, focus, and consistency. Smith praises McCallie's willingness to "let us be creative. She gives us lots of freedom. She lets us go out and play." McCallie adds "We try to mix it. We firmly believe in being a transition team. We love to run. It's fun. But the ability to pull up and run a half-court offense and make a team play defense is a championship ability. Freedom is a good thing. We need to nurture freedom. But sometimes you get involved in a half-court game and you'd better be able to execute."
McCallie makes a distinction between execution offense and hustle offense. Execution offense starts with getting the ball inside, which in turn should open up the perimeter. But she also wants to be able to score on sheer effort. "Nobody's rebounding enough. We need to be outrebounding opponents by 13,14 a game on a regular basis. We need more hustle offense. Offense can not come just from open shots." McCallie cites freshman Karima Christmas as a player who has carved out playing time on the basis of defense and rebounding. It should be noted that Duke currently outrebounding opponents by nine per game, which says something about McCallie's standards.
One area for improvement is communication. "We talk when we need to but we don't communicate as pro-actively as we should. I challenge players who don't talk enough. The post players need to demand the ball." McCallie says that Chante Black, who is making 53.2% of her field goals so far, is a weapon that Duke needs to better use.
Another challenge is integrating talented freshman point guard Jasmine Thomas with the veterans Smith and Waner. "Jas is doing great," says McCallie, "getting better every game. She's willing to learn and get better, she's fresh, she's new, people don't know how to defend her. But we can't negate the experience that Nish and Abby provide. They have to learn to play together. They don't know how yet but they will and it will be fun to watch."
McCallie is counting heavily on senior Smith and junior Abby Waner to elevate their games to even higher levels. "The best players empower others and make players do things they didn't think they could do. Add that element to a good player and you get an All-American. Nish and Abby are special players and we are challenging them in that way."
The senior Smith, who also was available to the media, embodies much of what McCallie is looking for. "Wanisha is not sensitive, she's easy to coach, wants to get better, has a sense of humor, and has an energy about her that is fun. I would have loved to have played with her. She's a versatile, attacking guard, very physical, who can create off the dribble. She's a blast to coach. She's got a little edge to her and I mean that in a good way." Smith returns the favor, praising McCallie's "intensity and love for the game."
The Miami game kicked off the ACC portion of Duke's schedule. The Blue Devils open their home ACC schedule tonight against Florida State. With the notable exception of Tennessee, it's ACC teams from here until the postseason. McCallie knows that her team needs to keep improving and expects that will be the case. "We have great competitors, who want to bring their A game every night. We want to do what we do, play our game, recognize strength and weaknesses. We need to be relentless on offense. We need more consistency. We're getting better on rebounding, on creating hustle offense. We have to impose the way we play, dominate in everything we do. Getting better. That's the key."