The past three years, the Blue Devils’ season has ended just one game short of a trip to the Final Four. But every season there was an excuse. In 2010, then-freshman Brittney Griner led Baylor to an improbable comeback in the closing minutes to send Duke home early. In 2011, after an unfortunate draw, head coach Joanne P. McCallie’s squad ran into Geno Auriemma and then-No. 1 Connecticut one round too early. And in 2012, numerous injuries finally caught up to the Blue Devils as the shorthanded team fell to Stanford.
This year’s team, however, has no more excuses. With four returning starters, Duke returns its entire core, leaving little doubt that this is McCallie’s most talented group ever. The team is battle-hardened and should be motivated by three years of heartbreak. With this combination of talent and experience, expect to see the Blue Devils in New Orleans come April playing for their first-ever national championship.
National rankings already consider Duke to be a favorite for the Final Four. The Blue Devils began the season ranked No. 3 in the AP preseason poll and were picked to win the ACC. The rankings are a testament to the talent McCallie has brought to Durham, including arguably one of the best inside-outside combinations in the country in point guard Chelsea Gray and center Elizabeth Williams.
One of the keys to any deep postseason run is a talented floor general, and Gray gives McCallie one of the best in the nation. She led the ACC by far with 6.1 assists per game last season as a sophomore, and enters the new campaign as Duke’s undisputed leader.
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Williams provides Gray with a talented option down low, after a freshman season in which she averaged 14 points and eight rebounds per game and was named the consensus National Freshman of the Year. She also showed off highlight-reel skills on the defensive end of the floor, for which she was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
This deadly combination of inside and outside play creates matchup nightmares for any opposing defense. These problems are further magnified by the contributions of Duke’s supporting cast. Juniors Haley Peters and Tricia Liston play their roles to perfection. Liston shot 46 percent from behind the arc last season, and her sharpshooting helps spread the floor, opening up passing lanes for Gray and space for Williams down low. The 6-foot-3 Peters uses her mix of size and athleticism to attack the basket relentlessly off the dribble and draw double teams away from Williams.
Despite all this talent, the key to a sustained run in March for the Blue Devils will be health. Their season was derailed last year after the team lost Chloe Wells to suspension and Amber Henson and Richa Jackson to injuries during the winter. The injury bug has continued to bite into this season. The team has already lost freshman center Katie Heckman for the season with a torn ACL. Jackson and Henson are both recovering from their injuries and are not expected to return until December. Most importantly, Williams apparently has not completely recovered from the stress fracture that she suffered in March. There is currently no timetable for Williams’ return.
Fortunately for Duke and its doctors, the season schedule has dealt the team a favorable hand. While the Blue Devils usually have one of the top non-conference schedules in the country each year, this season’s slate lacks any marquee opponents early on. Before January, Duke will only play two teams likely to be ranked, current No. 13 California and No. 22 Georgia Tech. This should give Williams, Jackson and Henson ample time to rest, so they can hopefully return at full strength when the schedule heats up after year end.
The Blue Devils must get back to full health by January to be able to earn a No. 1 seed in March. A top seed would allow them to avoid the top two teams in the country, Baylor and Connecticut, until the Final Four. Late-season slipups likely cost Duke its shot at a top seed last year, and avoiding these will make for a much easier road to New Orleans in 2013.
The Blue Devils have no reason not to be in New Orleans. They’ve run out of excuses. Overcoming the adversity of early-season injuries will play a critical role in Duke’s march to the Final Four, but there is simply too much talent and too much experience on the roster to fall short again this season. It’s time for Duke to take the next step, and you can count on seeing this team in the Final Four.
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