The attention being given to Mike Krzyzewski's top-ranked Blue Devils makes it easy to forget that Duke has another powerful basketball team on campus. The Duke women's basketball team begins play this weekend as the pre-season ACC favorites. Duke is ranked sixth in the AP poll, one spot higher in the USA Today-ESPN Coaches poll.
Duke is accustomed to this. The team has played in 16 consecutive NCAA Tournaments and has advanced to the Final Four four times.
Duke came agonizingly close to make that five last season, falling to Baylor in an Elite Eight game led by Duke virtually the entire game.
But Duke has had an almost a 50% roster turnover from last season. Three key seniors graduated. Power forward Joy Cheek was Duke's second-leading scorer, Keturah Jackson was a defensive stopper, and forward Bridgette Mitchell was a high-energy reserve. Reserves Chelsea Hopkins and Alexis Rogers transferred.
So, why is Duke ranked so high?
Let's start with Jasmine Thomas. A 5-9 senior, Thomas is one of the nation's top players. She is quick, skilled and versatile, the kind of player who makes first-team All-America.
Thomas says that in previous seasons she sometimes took on too much responsibility. "When I think about my previous years, I forced a lot of stuff, to some extent because I had to. I don't feel that way now."
Thomas' classmates are equally as important. Karima Christmas is an athletic 6-0 forward, a strong defender and rebounder. But she has been an erratic scorer. If she can give Duke a consistent 15 points per night, this team will be very hard to beat.
Then there's Krystal Thomas, a 6-5 senior. No relation to Jasmine, Krystal can be a dominant force inside. She had 22 rebounds in an exhibition win over Wingate. Wingate was as undersized as you might expect a D-2 team to be. But still, some players couldn't get 22 rebounds if they were on the floor by themselves. KT has had difficulty staying on the floor, sometimes because of fouls, sometimes conditioning issues caused by knee problems. She says being able to play longer is her top priority.
Thomas will be joined inside by Allison Vernerey, a 6-5 sophomore from Alsace, France. Vernery is a mobile lefty, with a skilled inside game. She needs to get stronger. Neither post player has much of a perimeter game, begging the question of how often they can be on the floor together.
Also returning are juniors Shay Selby and Kathleen Scheer. The 6-2 Scheer has been the surprise of the pre-season, showing an improved inside game. Selby is a combo guard whose experience should help her fight off the freshmen for playing time.
About those freshmen. Joanne Palombo McCallie and her staff brought in a five-player class regarded as the nation's best.
The key recruit is Chelsea Gray, the Parade Magazine High School Co-Player of the Year. Gray is a 5-11 point guard with the skill, athleticism and savvy to be a difference maker right away. A foot injury kept her out of practice for two weeks but Gray returned to practice this week. Missing practice isn't the ideal scenario for a freshman point guard but Gray has the talent to catch up in a hurry.
Chloe Wells is another talented freshman guard. She missed last season because of a transfer eligibility rule but seems to have shaken off the rust with surprising quickness.
Richa Jackson, Haley Peters and Tricia Liston were all prep All-Americans. The 6-0 Jackson is an athletic slasher, while Liston can play guard or forward at 6-1. The 6-3 Peters, whose brother Casey plays for the men's team, has a chance to get major time at the power forward spot.
Redshirt freshmen Janee Johnson is still rehabbing after knee surgery and likely doesn't figure in this year's plans
All five freshmen can shoot, a skill Duke has needed on some occasions in recent years. Their ability to play the ferocious defense demanded by Coach P will go a long way towards determining playing time.
Duke has lots of options this season. They can go big, they can play three guards, they can bring in shooters or defenders, experience or youth. Duke has the ability to run thinner, less athletic teams into the ground.
But it will take time to figure out which options work, which combinations play well together. McCallie promises to be patient. "An aggressive mistake is so much better than a passive one. You can coach that, and you can be motivated by that. That's important for the team."
BYU provides the opening opponent, this Saturday at 7. Duke's non-conference schedule is one of the nation's toughest and includes visits next month from Xavier and Texas A&M, both ranked in the top ten nationally. Kentucky visits in January, while a trip to Connecticut comes later that month.
Coach P says she loves tough schedules, the better to prepare her team for the March games that define the season. Duke has the talent to end that season in Indianapolis, the site of this season's Final Four.
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