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Chron Chat: Duke women's basketball prepares for final three games, postseason run

No. 10 Duke has resurrected its postseason chances by winning six of its last seven games in the past month, including wins at then-No. 12 North Carolina and against then-No. 8 Louisville. With three games left for the Blue Devils after Monday's 63-50 loss at No. 4 Notre Dame, beat writer Meredith Cash and Blue Zone editor Amrith Ramkumar take a look at the team's most pressing questions entering the season's home stretch:

Before Monday’s loss to Notre Dame, Duke had won six straight and was playing some of its best basketball of the season. In what area do you feel the Blue Devils have improved the most since early in the season?

Amrith Ramkumar: It hasn't been completely smooth sailing for Duke late in close games in conference play, but the Blue Devils have been much better at finding different ways to win after losing three consecutive games Nov. 30-Dec. 7 by a combined 11 points early in the year. Even with players in and out of the lineup—only three Duke players have played in all 26 games—the Blue Devils have done a much better job of getting the ball to Elizabeth Williams, Azura Stevens and Rebecca Greenwell in crunch time and have wins against the Cardinals, Tar Heels and No. 25 Syracuse to show for it.

Meredith Cash: The Blue Devils finally started playing with some consistency. At the beginning of the season, we saw a different Duke squad come out to play each game. In some games, the Blue Devils came out looking like they could compete with the nation’s best programs. In other games, however, Duke looked like a different team entirely—namely in its loss at Boston College. Recently the Blue Devils have cleaned up their game. As Amrith said, they have been much more successful in looking to their leading scorers—Williams, Stevens and Greenwell—to spur the team’s success down the stretch. Duke has become a smarter team throughout the course of one of its most difficult season in decades, leading to more consistent play.

With the season-ending injury to Oderah Chidom, the Blue Devils have several concerns—depth, inexperience, three-point defense and turnovers being the biggest ones. Which is the most pressing concern going forward?

AR: The lack of depth is the biggest issue for me going forward. Duke relies heavily on three players for almost 60 percent of its scoring and 50 percent of its rebounds. When one of those players can't get going—as was the case Monday night when Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd shut down Greenwell—the Blue Devils will likely struggle to consistently score, which puts an enormous amount of pressure on their defense. Without many true ball handlers, turnovers will continue to be an issue for this Duke team, but the unexpected lack of depth this late in the season is a serious concern as foul trouble and fatigue pop up more.

MC: I think in many instances throughout this season, Duke beat itself by committing a ridiculous amount of turnovers. The Blue Devils average 18.4 turnovers a game on the season, which is the most for a Duke team since the 1990-91 campaign. In the team's biggest wins thus far, it managed to temporarily move past their turnover woes. If Duke can cut its turnovers to somewhere between 12 and 15 turnovers a game, the Blue Devils will be much better suited to compete at a high level. Duke is playing with only one returning starter and no true point guard, but any steps it can take to keep its turnover count down in the home stretch will only help its level of play.

Freshman Azura Stevens has had a tremendous season for the Blue Devils and appears to be the next great Duke post player. What aspect of Stevens’ game has impressed you the most so far this season?

AR: I expected Stevens to be a solid rebounder using her 6-foot-5 frame and she has delivered, averaging 8.2 boards per game, but her steady improvement and efficiency from the field have been most impressive. The Raleigh, N.C., native has scored in double figures in her last six games and has gotten her scoring up to 13.8 points per game by averaging 14.5 points per contest in ACC play. But more impressive than the pure scoring numbers is Stevens' 53.3-percent shooting percentage, a top-30 clip nationally. The scary part for opponents has to be that Stevens is getting better and better each time she steps on the court and seems poised to form a formidable inside-outside duo with Greenwell for years to come.

MC: Definitely her versatility. Stevens is an absolute matchup nightmare. She stands at 6-foot-5, so naturally she is a powerhouse in the paint. The true enigma of Stevens' style of play is her incredible agility considering her size. She can handle the ball like a guard, and shoots like one too—her 53.3-percent shooting is simply remarkable. I remember Coach P. saying at the very beginning of the season that Stevens could play every position except point guard right now, but in the future she could see her potentially having the ability to play all five positions. I also remember looking at Stevens—who is incredibly tall and gangly—and thinking that Coach P must be mistaken. Needless to say, I stand corrected. Stevens is arguably one of the most well-rounded players I have seen on any team this season. And the icing on the cake—she’s only a freshman.

Elizabeth Williams has had another great season for Duke averaging 14,7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. But when considering the players other than the veteran All-American, who do you feel is the most important player for the Blue Devils going forward?

AR: Stevens and Greenwell are the easy choices because of how well they have played to this point, but I'm going to go with senior guard Ka'lia Johnson. She came up with three big 3-pointers against Louisville and has done her best to run Duke's offense despite not being a true point guard. And with the importance of valuing the ball on critical possessions and running effective offense in close games down the stretch of the season only increasing, her ability to continue improving in her role could make or break the Blue Devils' season. Unlike most seniors, Johnson doesn't have much experience in big-time late-season games, but Duke will need the Chester, Va., native to play like she does to reach its postseason goals.

MC: I’d have to go with Stevens on this one. As I said above, her versatility is unprecedented. She has shown that she is able to fill whatever niche the team needs her to fill at any given time, which is incredibly important for a Duke team that only has eight other scholarship players—including walk-on turned scholarship player Jenna Frush. On top of this incredibly short bench, the Blue Devils have been plagued with foul trouble all season. As Amrith said, both Stevens and Greenwell are obvious choices for the “second to Williams” role, but I think Stevens earns it because she excels on the glass. Stevens averages 8.2 rebounds per contest. Her ability to both dominate in the post and shoot efficiently on the perimeter makes her essential to the shorthanded Blue Devil squad.

The Blue Devils have three games remaining before the ACC tournament and are currently in line to host their first two games of the NCAA tournament. How far do you see Duke advancing in both tournaments?

AR: This is a tough question because so much is contingent upon seeding and matchups, especially for this Blue Devil team that can really struggle against teams with quickness and shooting on the perimeter. But I'll say as long as Duke can get the No. 2 or No. 3 seed—likely by winning out and having Louisville lose at Notre Dame next week—the Blue Devils have a good shot to make it to the ACC title game. Florida State got the better of Duke Jan. 11, but I like the Blue Devils' chances if a rematch occurred in the semifinals of the conference tournament mainly because Williams had more turnovers than points in that game and would be looking for redemption.

In the NCAA tournament, I think Duke avoids an early-round upset like the one it suffered last year and makes it to the Sweet 16, and I again like the Blue Devils' chances depending on the matchup to pull an upset to get to the Elite Eight. With Williams, Stevens and Greenwell playing at a high level, I think Duke has enough to make a solid tournament run, but not quite enough to get to the Final Four.

MC: Like Amrith said, seeding will be a major factor, but if the Blue Devils stay consistent through the remainder of the season, they should have favorable matchups come time for the ACC tournament. I am confident that Duke could power past the two teams it fell to early in ACC play—Florida State and Boston College. The Blue Devils have proven that, besides Notre Dame, they can compete with any team in the conference. I like Duke heading to the ACC title game, but I would be lying if I said I liked its chances against Notre Dame after witnessing Monday night’s rout firsthand.

As we all know, things are even more variable when it comes to the NCAA tournament. I agree with Amrith in that I don’t think the Blue Devils will suffer an upset early on two years in a row. I see no reason why Duke shouldn’t make it to the Sweet 16. If the Blue Devils play to their full potential and avoid falling back into their inconsistent ways, I think it is feasible that they’ll make it to the Elite Eight. Although the Final Four is definitely a stretch in my eyes, we’ve seen Duke compete with some of the best teams in the country. If the Blue Devils can manage to play at the level they have shown that they are capable of—think Duke in its one-point loss to then-No. 1 South Carolina—any team will have trouble handling the Blue Devils.


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