In the fast-paced, run-and-gun ACC, having an effective high-pressure press defense is crucial. To execute a successful full-court press, teams need to have quick guards and a center capable of anchoring down the defense.
But if the guards are bypassed, the center needs to step up to play physical defense in order to prevent easy baskets. Last year for the Blue Devils, that player was All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Chante Black.
Standing at 6-foot-5, Black had the size and athleticism to rebound and block shots, which meant she was able to lead a Duke press that peaked at the end of the year. But with her departure to the WNBA, the Blue Devils will need to find a player—or a group of players—to fill the void that she left on defense.
“Defensively we need a more aggressive, physical approach,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “Defensive mishaps of not being physical cost us games. Dictating the tempo of the game defensively is very important to us.“
Along with Black’s departure, the Blue Devils lost forward Carrem Gay, who totaled the third-most blocks on the team last year. The tandem of Gay and Black accumulated 92 blocks in the 2008-09 season, making up nearly half the team’s total.
Despite the loss of these two defensive stalwarts, Duke is optimistic about its inside presence this season. When asked about replacing last year’s seniors, senior guard and captain Bridgette Mitchell said she has faith in her teammates.
“We have Allison [Vernerey] and Krystal [Thomas],” Mitchell said. “They’re both very strong, dominant post players. They will both have their presence felt in there.”
Senior Joy Cheek is also expected to contribute inside and along the perimeter.
As a true freshman new to the country, some would assume that Vernerey would struggle to adjust to the ACC’s level of competition.
However, since the age of 16, she has accrued a plethora of international experience on the French national team.
In the U-16 European Championship in Latvia in 2007, Vernerey captained her team to the gold medal and averaged 15.9 points and 9.5 rebounds in nine games. Vernerey has the capability to become an elite center in the ACC and will only improve as the season continues.
Along with Vernerey’s potential in the paint this year comes Thomas’s experience and leadership.
In her third year as a Blue Devil, the 6-foot-4 Thomas will have to assume her biggest role yet. She has shown flashes of brilliance—a 16-point performance against Clemson and a 13-rebound showing versus Sienna—but will need to become consistent for the press to succeed this year.
Thomas always gave Duke a spark coming off the bench, but this season she will log her minutes as a starter.
The statistics from her first two years suggest she should be able to step into the starting role at center without difficulty. But Thomas is only one part of the larger defensive scheme that McCallie has implemented.
McCallie said the quickness of guards Jasmine Thomas and Keturah Jackson will dictate the tempo of the defense, while the size of Thomas and Vernerey will set the level of physicality that McCallie has emphasized this preseason.
The versatility of this Duke team will allow McCallie to take multiple approaches to each game on the defensive side of the ball, making it difficult for opponents to set a strategy for approaching the Blue Devil defense.
“We are going to be a very dangerous team to scout,” McCallie said. “On any given night we can have a breakout game from anybody. But the challenge for our student-athletes is to repeat it.”
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