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Duke Women’s Basketball Is At A Crossroads

Coach McCallie may be near the end of the road at Duke

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 ACC Women’s Tournament - Florida State v Duke
GREENSBORO, NC - MARCH 07: Duke Blue Devils head coach Joanne P. McCallie tries to get her defense to play harder during the ACC Women’s basketball tournament between the Florida State Seminole and the Duke Blue Devils on March 7, 2019, at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex in Greensboro, NC.
Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Duke women’s basketball team defeated their arch-rivals from North Carolina 73-54 on March 1. The win completed a season sweep of the Tar Heels and cemented Duke as the third seed for the following week’s ACC Tournament. Duke went into the tournament having won nine of their final 11 regular-season games, including a home win against Florida State and a road win against NC State. They were a trendy pick to win the league tournament.

Nothing has gone right for the program since then.

Duke couldn’t take advantage of the high seed and double bye, losing its tournament opener to sixth-seed Boston College. Duke had a lead late in the game but did not close well.

Still, Duke was projected as a seventh or eighth seed in the NCAA Tournament, meaning a 50/50 opening round game and then hopefully a likely second-round game against someone like Baylor or Maryland or Mississippi State, on their home court.

A likely loss, the 13th of the season. But still Duke was good enough to beat the Wolfpack on the road, so not a certain loss.

We’ll never know. Haley Gorecki and Leaonna Odom ended their Duke careers with that BC loss.

Gorecki was a USBWA All-America and a first-team All-ACC selection. Odom was a second-team All-ACC pick. Both were selected in the WNBA draft, although Gorecki was recently cut by Seattle, without ever putting her foot on a practice floor.

But Gorecki and Odom were the only rotation players to use up their eligibility. Maybe enough talent returned to enable Duke to be competitive in 2020-’21, as long as nothing went wrong and Duke added some talent this spring.

But the talent loss cascaded. Oft-injured Kyra Lambert could have played at Duke as a sixth-year grad-student but elected to transfer to Texas, where Vic Schaefer seems poised to return that school to greatness after moving over from Mississippi State.

This wasn’t a total surprise. Lambert is from Cibolo, Texas, about an hour from Austin.

But Duke was stunned a few weeks later when freshman Azana Baines transferred to conference rival Virginia Tech. Baines is 6-1, athletic, a top-notch defender in a program that just lost two standout wings and had no obvious replacement other than her. Baines showed a lot of promise in the middle of the season but played sparingly down the stretch after head coach Joanne P. McCallie compressed her rotation to seven players.

Which brings us to McCallie. She just completed her 13th season at Duke, her 28th year as a college head coach. She’s won 646 games against 255 losses. McCallie is 330-107 at Duke. She’s been a national coach of the year (2005, at Michigan State) and is a three-time ACC Coach of the Year. She’s overcome serious health issues, including bouts with melanoma.

Sounds like a keeper.

But McCallie has had one contract extension, has one more year left on that extended contract, wants another extension and there’s no reason to think she’s going to get one.

Why not?

McCallie took over the Duke program when Gail Goestenkors left for Texas. Goestenkors had made Duke a nationally-elite program, with Final Four appearances in 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2006.

The only thing missing was a national title. McCallie was supposed to rectify that.

She got Duke to regional finals in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. Duke came close in 2010, losing 51-48 against Baylor after a controversial call fouled out center Krystal Thomas late.

But the next three Elite-Eight losses were by margins of 35, 12 and 11 points.

Duke hasn’t been past the Sweet Sixteen since. Injuries played a role. Duke began the 2014 season ranked second by AP but 17 games into the season lost star guard Chelsea Gray for the season to a knee injury and didn’t make it out of the opening weekend of the NCAAs. Gray had suffered a season-ending knee injury the previous season. At times it’s seemed like season-ending-knee-injury could be the program’s motto. Notre Dame and Louisville joined the ACC from the Big East and combined to win six straight ACC Tournament titles, five by the Irish.

But it wasn’t just all bad luck. McCallie’s program began losing players to transfer and it wasn’t just end-of-bench reserves looking for more playing time. Alexis Jones and Azura Stevens were stars and Sierra Calhoun and Angela Salvadores were starting as freshmen.

All left for perceived greener pastures. Several were public in their criticisms of McCallie’s coaching style.

Full disclosure. McCallie has never been less than professional with me. She can be engaging and thoughtful. Many of her players swear by her. We’ve all worked with bosses who rubbed some people the wrong way and inspired others. It’s fair to say that McCallie falls in that category.

But after Duke went 20-12 in 2016—the most losses in one season since 1993—McCallie’s program was investigated for program-management issues.

She was retained after an in-house review. And in fairness, she seems to have made a good faith effort to put on a better public face.

But recruiting waters are shark-infested and the negative fallout adversely impacted her ability to reel in top-tier talent. Odom was a McDonald’s All-American and McCallie deserves credit for helping turn Gorecki from a top-40 recruit to a college All-American.

But recruiting has cratered in recent years. Great programs replace talent like Gorecki and Odom with equally great talent. But Duke hasn’t had a McDonald’s All-America since Jade Williams in the prep class of 2017.

Duke needed a banner recruiting season and expected to get one. Instead Duke signed only one player this fall, Vanessa DeJesus, a 5-8 point guard from Sierra Canyon, California. She’s a nice prospect, a top-40 kind of player.

But Duke needed a lot more. Duke has come up empty this spring and there’s not much left to pursue. Even attempts to bring in an international player or two have come up empty.

Duke has five open scholarships but no apparent takers.

It gets worse. Duke only has ten recruited players for 2020-’21. Guard Jayda Adams and center Jennifer Ezeh are both recovering from knee surgery and COVID-19 has kept them away from Duke’s rehab facilities. It’s not clear if either will be ready to go next fall. Rising junior Uchenna Nwoke and rising sophomores Jaida Patrick and Jada Claude need to make a big step up this summer and it’s not certain they will have any opportunity to work with the coaches to achieve that goal. Claude is an undersized 6-0 power forward who will have to move to small forward and she’s nowhere near ready.

Duke has four returning players with some demonstrated ability to play in the ACC. The 6-5 Williams will be a senior, 6-3 forward Onome Akinbode-James and guard Miela Goodchild will be juniors and point guard Mikalya Boykin will be a redshirt sophomore.

None of them have ever averaged more than the 10.9 points per game Goodchild averaged as a freshman. Goodchild and Williams averaged 7.3 points per game last season, Boykin 7.1.

For Duke to be competitive Boykin might have to be used like a Lexie Brown or Jasmine Thomas, 30-35 or so minutes a game, with the ball in her hands as a primary scorer and distributor. But Boykin has undergone numerous knee surgeries and that’s a big gamble to take.

Or a big gamble not to take.

Duke is set to host in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge but there will not be any big-time out of conference teams on the schedule. Instead, expect to see lots of in-state mid-majors. Reducing travel costs in a pandemic is a real reason for schedule changes but it’s also clear that Duke is trying to schedule some wins.

Because there’s no way to avoid the ACC slog and it looks like Duke will have a hard row to hoe to be competitive in the conference.

If that sounds overly pessimistic, bracketologist Charlie Creme doesn’t even have Duke in his last eight out for the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

So, it’s not just me.

And unless something changes and changes in a big way McCallie’s 14th season at Duke will be her last.

That may seem unfair and maybe it is. Maybe she could have saved her job with a deep 2020 NCAA Tournament run. But under Goestenkors Duke went nine consecutive seasons without double-digit losses. Duke has hit that threshold four times in the last six seasons and has missed the NCAA Tournament twice after making the tournament 21 consecutive seasons. Duke is 1-3 in the last three ACC Tournaments. There’s no compelling reason to extend her contract.

You’ll likely hear lots of speculation about her successor and the Goestenkors rumors are not baseless. Neither are the rumors that Alana Beard and/or Lindsey Harding might be interested in coming back home, although possibly not in an assistant role.

Goestenkors is 57 and hasn’t coached at the collegiate level since 2012.

Worth a roll of the dice? Or better to go with a young up-and-comer?

Or look at Texas, which was able to lure Schaefer away from Starkville and MSU’s title-level program. It took a deep checkbook. Is there another Vic Schaefer out there? If so, is Duke willing to pursue that coach? Assuming McCallie is allowed to finish out her contract, Duke won’t be paying anyone to not coach.

How long will it take a new coach to turn it around? Duke has two commitments from the class of 2021, Lauren Walker a 6-1 wing from Atlanta and Brooklyn Rewers, a 6-3 post player from Lake City, Idaho. Rewers’ father Brian is 6-10 and played at Wyoming and for many years in Europe.

Both are marginal top-100 players, complementary players perhaps but not likely the kind of talent Duke will need to get back to national-elite status. After all, complementary players need better players to complement.

But the Duke name is still strong and the right hire can turn around a basketball program in a hurry. Duke AD Kevin White hasn’t announced any plans for retirement. But he’ll turn 70 this year and this could be one of his last chances to stamp his imprint on Duke. He needs to get this right.

But that’s for down the road. Until then there’s always a chance that Boykin, Goodchild, Akinbode-James, Williams and their teammates will prove the skeptics—me included—wrong. That’s something to root for. These players will have to deal with COVID-19, the possibility of playing in an empty arena and a likely lame-duck head coach and constant questions about all of them. They deserve support, because it looks like a long, strange trip for Duke women’s basketball in 2020-’21.