The Blue Devils will not lack talent this season, especially on the offensive end, but talent alone will not suffice. Scoring ability will not mask the myriad injury issues and defensive struggles that will ultimately preclude Duke from reaching the Final Four for the first time under head coach Joanne P. McCallie.
Just as they were last year, injuries have to be a primary concern for McCallie. Five of McCallie’s 12 scholarship players—juniors Richa Jackson and Chloe Wells, sophomores Amber Henson and Elizabeth Williams, and freshman Katie Heckman—will miss at least part of the season. Heckman, the team’s second-tallest player, will miss the entire season after tearing her ACL. Jackson, Wells—who started all ten games at point guard last season before being suspended from school—and former top-10 recruit Henson will all likely miss multiple games, and Henson is living proof that no timetable is ever certain. Complications from Henson’s knee surgery last year have lengthened her recovery process.
Most troublingly, McCallie also announced that there is no timetable for the return of Virginia Beach native Williams.
“Elizabeth is a work in progress recovering from her stress fracture,” McCallie said. “[She is] still not in practice yet.”
Williams, considered by many to be the most talented player on Duke’s roster, has been plagued by the stress fracture in her leg since last March. An entire summer of rehab has apparently not gotten the All-American back to playing condition. Typically, a stress fracture can take four to 12 weeks to heal, but seven months later Williams cannot practice, much less contribute in a game. Without the 6-foot-3 sophomore, Duke will suffer on both sides of the ball. Even for the injury-free Duke players, there is a need for improvement. Worrisome lapses in defensive consistency could cost the Blue Devils down the road, especially in March’s single-elimination format.
“We have got to be better defensively,” McCallie said. “There’s some shot-contesting issues that have been a problem for us. Rebounding-wise we are not nearly as dominant as we need to be, so there’s a lot of issues of improvement we need to look at as a team.”
The same issues with closing out shooters and rebounding that plagued Duke in their loss to the scout team in the blue-white scrimmage could cost them games that matter in the future.
“As a coach, you’re really concerned about defense and rebounding because I think we have been subpar in those areas,” McCallie said. “When we played the [scout team], that’s why we lost. That game should have been a 20-point win for us.”
The Blue Devils could avoid perennial powerhouse teams like Baylor and Connecticut by securing a high seed in the tournament, but there are still plenty of threats in the field.
Fifth-ranked Maryland will prove a stout conference opponent, and is also the type of team that could knock the Blue Devils out in the Elite Eight. If Duke does not address its defensive concerns, expect junior forward and prolific scorer Alyssa Thomas to make the Blue Devils pay. Thomas, an AP preseason All-American, led the ACC in scoring last year with 17.2 points per game.
The list goes on. Skylar Diggins will be a force for Muffet McGraw’s Notre Dame, and Stanford will be looking to reach its sixth-consecutive Final Four behind star forward Chiney Ogwumike and a slew of talented perimeter players. Up-and-coming programs like Georgia, Penn State and Kentucky will also be threats to Duke in the postseason.
The Blue Devils have been highly ranked in preseason polls many times since McCallie’s arrival, but have yet to get past the Elite Eight. Junior Haley Peters, for one, has not forgotten the disappointment of last season’s finish.
“We want to be champions in our conference and make it to the Final Four,” Peters said. “That’s obviously everyone’s goal. Not getting [to the Final Four] makes it so you can’t be satisfied. Coming up short leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
Unfortunately for her and her teammates, injuries, lackluster defense and a deep, talented field will prevent Duke from turning the tide this year.