Great things come to those who wait, so the cliché goes.

Graduate students Rebecca Greenwell and Lexie Brown have waited for four years. Head coach Joanne P. McCallie has waited her whole Duke career for another taste of the Final Four. And with so many pieces finally coming together, this may be the breakthrough year.

Tabbed with preseason All-American honors, Greenwell and Brown lead arguably the most complete team in McCallie’s tenure with the Blue Devils. With a balance of demonstrated senior leadership in Brown, Greenwell and graduate transfer Bego Faz Davalos coupled with highly-touted underclassmen Leaonna Odom and Mikayla Boykin, lofty expectations hover above the 2017-18 women’s basketball team.

“I think we’re going to have a very successful season and be very tough to beat,” Greenwell said. “We have a veteran team with a lot of experience and talented newcomers who are ready to make an impact. I think we can accomplish anything we set our minds to, and we are going to be really tough.”

As is the case with either Duke basketball program, there will always be preseason expectations. With the exception of the past two years, every women’s basketball team dating back to the 2000-01 season has been ranked in the preseason top 10. But something about this team feels different—special, even, with the team’s top two scoring threats also serving as its experienced leaders.

From a historical perspective, preseason expectations correlate with the volume of senior leadership. The two most highly-touted Blue Devil teams in the last 12 years have been the 2013-14 squad—which entered the season with a No. 2 ranking—and the 2005-06 team, which received the No. 1 overall ranking prior to competition. 

Breaking down the rosters reveals a host of similarities. Both possessed a balanced starting five with a wealth of veteran experience–the 2013-14 team had five seniors, the 2005-06 team, four–and both teams leaned on those seniors to be the dominant figures on and off the court. It’s a simple recipe, but it works—the Blue Devils last reached a Final Four in 2006, ultimately falling to Maryland in the championship game in overtime. 

Brown alluded to the necessity of these intangibles during the team’s media day.

“One thing last year that we weren’t necessarily missing, but we didn’t have enough of, was senior leadership,” the Suwanee, Ga., native said. “I think that with this group, we are super experienced and we had a lot of success last season, which we can bring into this season. I’m really excited—this team can definitely get to the Final Four.”

This year’s Blue Devil team has a similar make-up to those two. Although Duke enters the season just outside the top 10 at No. 12, it has three graduate students in Brown, Greenwell and Davalos, all of whom boast exceptional NCAA résumés in addition to true senior Erin Mathias, who has steadily increased her role on the team and started last year in the NCAA tournament.  

The veterans are complemented by a deep recruiting class of four freshmen, led by Mikayla Boykin, whose staggering high school numbers alone are enough cause for excitement. The Clinton, N.C., native shattered a host of state records by averaging 37.4 points, 13.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 5.6 steals per game as a senior.

“I’ve just been really pleased that they are all a threat,” McCallie said. “They’re all competitive and they work hard. All four of them can play and there’s nothing that distinguishes—they all have ability, which makes it very exciting. It’s a strong class with a lot of potential.”

Where the veteran experience will ideally prove most valuable is in the postseason, an area in which the Blue Devils have struggled to maintain consistency. Since the championship loss to Maryland in 2006, Duke has yet to reach another Final Four, despite six No. 2 seeds and two No. 1 seeds since 2007. Though all of those teams had seniors who made significant contributions, lessons from the 2005-06 team’s success leave room for comparison. 

Point guard Lindsey Harding led that Blue Devil team throughout the NCAA tournament as a redshirt junior, ultimately becoming the program’s first No. 1 WNBA draft pick a year later; depending on her play this season, Lexie Brown could easily become a top-five selection. Although Brown will likely lead Duke to a host of victories before March, the postseason will likely be the most defining metric of the team’s success, given its wealth of talent and experience. 

Despite the pressure, there is a tangible sense of excitement amongst the players, a sentiment echoed by McCallie. 

“We think really highly of ourselves,” she said. “What other people think about us is not the most important thing.... We’re excited. I don’t think anyone on the outside could ever think as well as our potential and our opportunity to get after every game.” 

Rebecca Greenwell has seen it all at Duke. The Owensboro, Ky., native has weathered a torn ACL, transfers of star players, allegations against the head coach, missing the NCAA tournament in 2016 and more. In her last season, however, with pieces of the team’s puzzle finally starting to yield a clear picture, the redshirt senior is as confident as ever. When asked if this team is the best during her tenure at Duke, there was no hesitation.

“For sure,” she said. “We have all the pieces. I think we’re going to be really good.”

Hank Tucker and Conner McLeod contributed reporting.