clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Jim Sumner Previews Duke Women!

The Duke women's basketball team opens November 11 at Brigham Young. The home opener is the following Friday against Auburn.

This year's edition is an intriguing blend of talent and youth. Coach Joanne P. McCallie says this is the youngest team she's ever coached. Duke is replacing All-ACC guard Jasmine Thomas, center Krystal Thomas and forward Karima Christmas, all of whom played in the WNBA last season.

Duke returns only three upperclassmen, senior guard Shay Selby, senior forward Kathleen Scheer and junior center Alison Vernerey, all of whom project to be complementary players.

The core of the team is a sophomore group that came into Duke ranked as the nation's top recruiting class. Three started both exhibition games and all five project to be in the rotation.

About those exhibitions. Duke opened with hopelessly overmatched Pfeiffer College, which fell 112-27. That's what 40 turnovers will do to you, especially when combined with 19% shooting.

Lander College provided a better test. Lander was ranked No.1 in Division-2 part of last season and actually made Duke work much of the game. The final was 79-52.

McCallie started the same lineup both games, Selby, sophomores Chelsea Gray, Chloe Wells and Haley Peters and freshman Elizabeth Williams. Scheer and versatile sophomore Tricia Liston were the first subs off the bench.

It's no surprise that Gray led the way. Fully healthy from a foot injury that vexed her all last season, the slimmed-down Gray pretty much did whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. She shot 15-for-22 from the field, with 13 assists, 14 rebounds and 10 steals in the two games. She's a legitimate All-America candidate.

Her running mate is something of a surprise. Classmate Chloe Wells is playing with an assertive confidence largely missing last season.

Gray, Wells and Selby give McCallie three ball-handlers in the starting lineup, a mix that McCallie says she loves. "I like it because there's a lot of confidence in seeing the floor. There's a lot of eyes looking up. The more you look up, the more you can see the floor and see great players like Elizabeth [Williams], Amber [Henson] and Haley [Peters] running down the floor. There's a lot of upside to it on both sides of the ball."

After much talk about moving to the wing, Peters seems firmly ensconced inside. She's a tough, glue player, who gets after it every second she's on the floor and doesn't have to have the ball to make a positive impact.

Elizabeth Williams rounds out the starting lineup. Considered one of the top freshmen in the country, the 6-3 Williams has the potential to be the best post player in school history. She's that talented, a rare blend of size, strength, skill and athleticism. Williams can run the floor but operates most effectively inside. She has shown a trend to rush shots inside, a sign of freshman nerves that should abate quickly.

Selby tellingly contrasts Williams with her recent predecessors at center. "She's phenomenal. Her ability to come in and play at this level from the start is amazing. As a guard, I love having a post that can catch the ball and finish."

Tricia Liston projects to be the key reserve. At 6-1, she provides instant offense at either small forward or shooting guard. Liston also appears to be slimmer and better conditioned than she was as a freshman. She'll get starters' minutes.

The rest of the bench is a work in progress. Williams' ascendance seems to come at the expense of Vernerey, who played only 23 minutes in the two exhibition games, all backing up Williams.

McCallie says the two can play together. If so, the duo could dominate the paint. It's not clear if either can be on the floor with Duke nursing a lead late in a game. Vernerey is a career 47% foul shooter and went 1-9 in the exhibition games. Williams wasn't much better in high school but was an encouraging 8-12 in the exhibitions.

Scheer and 6-4 freshman Amber Henson round out the interior rotation. Henson--whose brother John stars for the UNC men's team--is an athletic player, who has been bothered by knee problems. Right now, she's the only health concern, a big improvement over last season. Scheer has experience and savvy on her side but Henson has a higher ceiling.

Sophomore Richa Jackson was one of those plagued by injuries last season. A slasher as a freshman, the 6-1 forward has improved her perimeter game and figures to challenge for playing time. Freshman guard Ka'lia Johnson appears a little overmatched early but comes to Duke with good credentials. She has time.

Duke even has a walk-on, Durham native Jenna Frush, a 5-6 victory cigar.

McCallie has size, depth and athleticism. Is that enough?

McCallie's teams rely heavily on defensive pressure and rebounding, using both to shut down opponents, while generating easy baskets on the other end. Her offense has sometimes short-circuited when forced to run half-court sets against quality opponents. Can Gray and Wells co-exist as dual point-guards in close games and change that?

McCallie says that she'll let them figure it out on the floor. "For the most part, I'd like them to be sort of 50/50 and work it. Maybe time and scores might dictate, but overall, I'm trying to get them to play the game and take charge. I find I'm yelling at both of them a lot right now - definitely in a good way."

The ACC figures to be highly competitive. Duke is ranked eighth nationally but second in the ACC, to Miami, coached by former Duke star Katie Meier. The teams meet only once in the regular season, February 24, in Cameron.

But for that game to decide the regular season, Duke and Miami will have to navigate a minefield that includes nationally-ranked Florida State, Maryland and North Carolina teams, a solid Georgia Tech squad and improving North Carolina State and Wake Forest teams. Joanne Boyle, a former Duke player and assistant, now leads the Virginia program. They visit Cameron January 2. And Connecticut comes calling January 30, bringing with them a four-game winning streak against the Blue Devils, none of them especially competitive.

McCallie and Gail Goestenkors before her have generated high expectations for Duke women's basketball, 17 consecutive NCAA appearances, seven ACC Tournament titles since 2000 and four Final Fours. But McCallie's Duke teams haven't made it to the final weekend and Duke is still seeking that elusive NCAA title.

Duke is bringing in the kind of recruiting classes needed to get back to the Final Four and compete for championships. Unlike men's basketball, there's no fear of major talents like Gray or Williams leaving early for the pros, so Duke should be very good for the foreseeable future.

Is very good, good enough? It's tempting to say that Duke is too young to get over the hump this season, a conjecture rejected by players and coaches alike.

A team this young likely will go through some growing pains, maybe an unexpected loss or two. But the talent is there for significant improvement over the course of season. Will this leave Duke in position to extend their season into April?

Should be fun to find out.