Chron Chat: Blue Devils struggling to adjust without Stevens

With nearly half of conference play behind them, the Blue Devils sit at 17-8 and 6-5 in the ACC. Duke has worked its way through injuries and early struggles to play better basketball in recent weeks. The Chronicle's women's basketball beat writers take a look at some of the storylines facing the team the rest of the way. 

Duke is 1-1 playing without star forward Azurá Stevens, who tore her plantar fascia Feb. 1 against Notre Dame. Stevens is listed as day-to-day, but if the 6-foot-6 sophomore is out for the foreseeable future, how does this affect the Blue Devils on both ends of the floor?

Mitchell Gladstone: Without Stevens, the Blue Devils looked incredibly lost Sunday afternoon in Coral Gables. They mired through a nearly 16-minute field goal drought and shot just 12 percent from the field in the first half. The 6-foot-6 forward is a double-double machine and given that Duke relies on her for a large portion of its offense, they had a hard time keeping up with the No. 19 team in the country—falling to 0-5 against ranked opposition this season. Even though Stevens is a force on the defensive end, the Blue Devils can make up for her absence there. But without her talent on offense, Duke is at an incredible disadvantage as teams will be able to focus on just redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell.

Drew Johnson: Stevens’ departure leaves a big hole in the paint that will need to be filled by the other forwards, namely Oderah Chidom and Amber Henson. The sophomore’s injury will also be felt by the team’s guards, who are now without their best post passing option. Stevens is a player who drew attention from opposing defenses and created open opportunities for the team's shooters, so expect her absence to have an impact on the wing players’ ability to find easy looks. Look for Erin Mathias to step into an enhanced role for the team, as the sophomore has averaged 14.5 minutes per game since Stevens’ injury—more than double her season average of 7.7 minutes per game.

Hank Tucker: Without Stevens, the team loses its only player that can consistently create her own shot and score around the basket. This makes the Blue Devils prone to extended stretches of stagnant offense, such as the first half Sunday against Miami. Duke can make up for Stevens’ absence a little better on the defensive end, where Henson remains a vocal leader and has helped the Blue Devils hold their last two opponents to an average of 56.5 points.

Stevens and Greenwell have been the offensive leaders of this team all season. Who is the one other player who needs to step up into a more productive role down the stretch?

MG: The one player that will be most critical down the stretch is freshman Kyra Lambert. The Cibolo, Texas, native has been productive in stretches, posting one of her best performances back in December at No. 2 South Carolina and providing the spark her team desperately needed last week against No. 3 Notre Dame. Lightining-quick and steady with the ball in her hands, the 5-foot-9 point guard has the ability to set the tone for her team and has proven that she is unafraid of top competition. If Lambert can keep developing as a dynamic offensive weapon, expect her to not only put points up on the board, but also open up lanes for her teammates to knock down shots as well.

DJ: I see Henson as a player who needs to step up and help fill in. The graduate student has the potential to emerge as a leader and have a positive impact both on the court and in the locker room, and strong play from Henson—alongside the recently-improved Chidom—would go a long way in the efforts to recover from Stevens’ absence. The Tampa, Fla., native will certainly be given the chance to prove herself, as she played a season-high 31 minutes in the team’s loss to Miami.

HT: Freshman point guard Angela Salvadores entered Duke as the crown jewel of its top-ranked recruiting class and although she has shown flashes of brilliance, she needs to become more consistent down the stretch to take the Blue Devils to another level. She leads the team with 74 assists on the year, but her 76 turnovers are also the most on the team by a large margin. If Salvadores can cut down on these mistakes and start shooting the ball consistently from the perimeter, she could become the third major contributor on offense that Duke desperately needs.

Thursday's home against No. 10 Florida State is likely Duke's last chance to notch a win against a ranked opponent before the ACC tournament. How much would a victory against the Seminoles affect the Blue Devils' postseason stock?

MG: Outside of a difficult stretch at the beginning of ACC play—one in which they lost three of their first four games to unranked teams—Duke really doesn’t have a bad loss on their tournament resumé. South Carolina, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Miami and Kentucky all currently reside in the top 20 of the AP poll and the Blue Devils have shown in those losses that they are capable of competing with the best. Even though a win Thursday night against Florida State may not raise their tournament seed, the Blue Devils could very well need the confidence boost from a win going forward. 

DJ: A win against the Seminoles would be huge for McCallie’s squad, and would give the team a huge boost of momentum as they close out the regular season. Duke has been nothing but disappointing when facing ranked opponents this season, but a win against one of the best teams in the country without the Blue Devils’ best player would certainly stand out to the selection committee. Duke is in the midst of one of its worst seasons in recent history, and a win against a top-10 team would be a lone bright spot to the Blue Devils' resume.

HT: Although Mitchell's right when he says Duke does not have any ugly losses, the team lacks any sort of marquee win to bolster their resume. The team's No. 39 RPI ranking right now should be good enough for an NCAA tournament berth but not by a wide margin. A win Thursday night would give the Blue Devils a safety blanket for the rest of the season in that it would finally show the selection committee that Duke can beat a tournament team. If the Blue Devils lose to the Seminoles and then pick up a bad loss or two the rest of the way, it would have to face the real possibility of failing to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994.

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