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Is Duke Back In The NCAA Conversation?

The Blue Devils are having quite a turnaround

NCAA Womens Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Duke vs Notre Dame
Mar 5, 2017; Conway , SC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Leaonna Odom (5) shoots a three point shot in the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the women’s ACC Conference Tournament at HTC Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t look now but here comes Duke.

No, not in the-introducing-the-team-sense.

I’m talking about the Duke women’s basketball team. Dead in the water just a few weeks ago, Duke has won five-of-six, seven-of nine to get firmly back into the NCAA-Tournament picture. In fact, Duke currently is tied for fourth in the ACC and would move into third with a win over Florida State this weekend.

Some context. An injury-plagued Duke team went 15-15 last season, its worst record since 1993. But Duke returned everyone of consequence, including All-ACC wing Haley Gorecki and uber-talented but inconsistent forward Leaonna Odom, while welcoming back guards Kyra Lambert and Mikalya Boykin from ACL surgeries.

Expectations were high, especially when Lambert came back for the opening game after missing every game of the preceding two seasons. Lambert has been solid, especially on the defensive end. But Duke needed more firepower than her five points per game.

The non-conference portion of Duke’s schedule verged on a disaster. It wasn’t just that Duke lost five times, it also was the margins of defeat, 21 points to Texas A&M, 21 points to Northwestern, 43 points to South Carolina, 22 points to Florida Gulf Coast.

Having mastered the blow-out loss, Duke turned to the last-second loss. Louisville came back late to win by five, Wake Forest beat Duke at the buzzer, Virginia overcame an eight-point deficit with three minutes left to win by three.

The Virginia loss on January 9th left Duke 1-3 in the ACC, 7-8 overall, a lost season looming.

How did Duke turn it around?

To a player they all maintain that the close losses showed how close they were. Yes, that’s the kind of thing every team says after close losses.

But Duke has backed it up.

Gorecki continues to play at an-all-star level. Last year she became the first player to lead the Duke women in scoring, rebounding and assists in a season and she is on track to duplicate that accomplishment. She also leads the team in steals.

But Duke lost 15 times last season. Gorecki has finally started getting the help she deserves.

Odom got called out for inconsistent effort and focus by everyone from the Duke Chronicle to commentator Debbie Antonelli and responded with the best basketball of her career, even being named national player of the week. Odom has averaged 15.8 points per game over her last eight games, while shooting 55.8 percent from the field and maintaining the ability to guard pretty much anyone on the court.

Then there’s Boykin. This is a player who averaged 38 points per game as a senior. She came back in Duke’s 13th game and played only 11 combined minutes in her first two games. But she’s slowly worked her way back into game shape and has given Duke a third perimeter scorer, scoring 14 points against Virginia Tech, hitting five 3-pointers against Syracuse, another 15-point game at Miami.

Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie is famous—some would say infamous—for her post-centric offense. But with Gorecki, Odom, Boykin and Lambert all playing at a high level she has recognized that the strength of her team is on the perimeter and has made some crucial adjustments, frequently playing all four of these players together, with one true post player, a four-out offense that helped score 88 points at Syracuse, 74 against Miami, 71 against North Carolina. Odom is a frequent target for home-run passes down the court and Duke wrapped up a 71-61 win over North Carolina when Gorecki hit Lambert with a 70-foot in-bounds pass for the layup.

“I think we can play with a lot of different people on the floor at the same time,” Boykin says of going small “but particularly with that line-up, we can get the ball out super-fast. Everybody can take the ball down the court. Haley can, running the break fast, setting up plays fast. It’s just something we flow into that kind of line-up. When everybody, in on the court we can all bring something different.”

Gorecki agrees.

“I love it, playing with guards on the floor, we move faster obviously we have a ton of outlets, everybody can handle the ball. It’s fun it’s fast, we find each other really well, we look for each other all the time.”

There are even signs that Duke is beginning to master a long-standing bugaboo, turnovers. Duke had 14 turnovers against NC State, 11 against Pittsburgh.

It’s still a work in progress. Duke still defines itself as a defensive team and the Blue Devils haven’t allowed more than 67 points in a game since December. Duke only scored 58 points against Georgia Tech but held the Yellow Jackets to 46 and Duke ended a -game losing streak to Notre Dame 50-47.

McCallie also has compressed the rotation. Jade Williams and Onome Akinbode-James handle the post play. Boykin’s return has cut into the playing time of Miela Goodchild. But she’s still a dangerous sharp=shooter off the bench. Versatile 6-1 Azana Baines is the only freshman getting significant minutes.

That’s eight players.

Bracketologist Charlie Creme has Duke as one of the last four teams in the NCAA Tournament, hardly solid ground but a positive trend for a team missing in action barely a month ago.

Duke has five games left, all ACC games, none a sure thing. Florida State at home and at NC State February 24 give Duke a chance to get a signature win against a top-10 team. The Wolfpack had to overcome a 10-point second-half deficit to edge Duke 63-60 in Cameron and their decisive home loss to Louisville earlier this week shows they aren’t invulnerable at Reynolds.

But rematches against Virginia (in Cameron) and on the road against Virginia Tech and North Carolina also present opportunities. Tech and UNC are also in the hunt for an NCAA bid and Duke has a win in the pocket against both. Winning the rematches would give Duke a tiebreaker, should one be needed.

Duke already has the tiebreaker against Boston College, Georgia Tech and Syracuse, teams they play only once.

Finishing in the top four would give Duke a double-bye in next month’s ACC Tournament in Greensboro.

Two more wins would leave Duke 10-8 and likely needing a win or two in Greensboro to feel good about their chances to go dancing. Three would leave Duke 11-7 and I cannot imagine an 11-7 ACC team staying home.

It starts with Sunday against an FSU team that is on a roll and has won five of its last six against Duke.

But the ‘Noles aren’t the only team on a roll. Duke is still playing big games in the middle of February and that’s to their credit. Let’s see if they can bring it home.