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Chron Chat: Previewing Duke women's basketball

With the start of the season just a couple days away, the Chronicle's women's basketball beat writers take a look at some of the big questions facing the Blue Devils as they get set to begin the regular season. 

After playing a big lineup a year ago, the Blue Devils have an influx of talented guards this season. How do you think head coach Joanna P. McCallie will spread the wealth in the backcourt this season?

Mitchell Gladstone: For McCallie, having a full backcourt could be the best problem to have at this point. Through the first two exhibition games, her top-ranked recruiting class has shown itself to be unafraid and very willing to assert itself on both ends of the court. Haley Gorecki will shoot the ball from anywhere and Kyra Lambert is an aggressive defender who can set the tone for the rest of her team. With Angela Salvadores slowly returning to the rotation as well, Duke will have a variety of threats from the guard position. With the five freshmen combing for 38-percent of the team’s scoring in the first two exhibitions, it is evident that they will be ready to make an immediate impact this season.

Drew Johnson: Expect McCallie to implement a variety of lineup combinations early in the season as she figures out where everyone best fits into the system. There will be lots of substitutions and plenty of ball-sharing, as the Blue Devils now have several talented scorers at multiple positions and will not be so heavily reliant on Azurá Stevens and Rebecca Greenwell.

Hank Tucker: Duke can’t go wrong with any combination here, and McCallie has shown that she is willing to put any group of guards together on the floor at any time. Greenwell is a lock to start at shooting guard after a great freshman season, but after that, it’s an open competition for playing time among the other freshmen. Salvadores and Lambert are the Blue Devils' two highest-ranked recruits, and they will probably share point guard duties. But Salvadores can play well off the ball too, and Gorecki and freshman Crystal Primm could play their way into contributing roles as well. There may be a couple of really good guards that spend a lot of time on the bench—especially if Duke starts Azurá Stevens on the wing at small forward—but too much backcourt talent is a good problem to have after last season’s thin backcourt. 

Ben Feder: I think that the first few games of the season will really tell us who will be handling the ball for Duke. Early games against Pennsylvania and Winthrop should allow the team to experiment with vastly different lineups, giving different players opportunities a look in the backcourt. Lambert is favored to assume the primary point guard duties, especially with Salvadores still getting back into game form. As the season moves on, look for Lambert and Salvadores to split point guard duties for the Blue Devils, with Greenwell occasionally bringing up the ball as well at the shooting guard position.

Duke lost All-American Elizabeth Williams to the WNBA and senior Ka'lia Johnson to graduation What is the biggest question mark facing the team as they get start to begin this season?

MG: The biggest question for Duke this season is seeing who will emerge as the team’s leader. Williams was certainly the team’s vocal leader last season and McCallie has emphasized that as a redshirt sophomore, Greenwell needs to step up and vocalize herself during practices and games. That, however, is just a part of transition of roles. Stevens will now become the focal point on offense and Greenwell will move back to her more natural position as an off-ball scorer, rather than the point guard role that she played for most of last season. Although the team doesn’t have a ton of turnover, everyone has a slightly different role now than they did last year.

DJ: The biggest question for me will be whether or not Oderah Chidom can stay healthy and continue the strong performances that she had in the exhibition games. Williams left some big shoes to fill, and I wonder whether Chidom—who missed a big chunk of last year with a recurring shoulder injury—will remain available to the Blue Devils for the entirety of the season. If so, the combination of Stevens and Chidom in the low-post will prove to be valuable for Duke.

HT: Will the Blue Devils be able to replace the post presence and rebounding that Williams provided throughout her career? Amber Henson will undoubtedly be a leader in the post if she can stay healthy, which has always been a question mark for her, and Stevens will have to adopt more of a frontcourt role, but Duke will need more than these two to contribute in the paint. Kendall Cooper had a double-double in the second exhibition game, and she will need to perform consistently this season. As Drew mentioned, Chidom will also have to make the most of her meaningful minutes in the frontcourt.

BF: I'm really interested to see how well Azurá Stevens can transition to playing center this season. Last year, Stevens played primarily power forward with Williams at the center position, but this year, she will be asked to take on a low-post role for the Blue Devils. Especially defensively, questions linger as to how well Stevens can guard powerful centers, a role that Williams thrived in last season. If Stevens can hold her own on the defensive end of the court, the Blue Devils should be able to finish near the top of the ACC this season. 

A year ago, sophomore Azura Stevens and redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell slowly became the team's leaders and the face of the program going forward. Who is a player flying under the radar that could make a big impact for the Blue Devils this season?

MG: If you’re looking for a “sleeper” on this Blue Devils roster, look no further than the 6-foot-4 junior Chidom. The California native missed the end of the 2014-15 season with a shoulder injury, but made an impact in limited minutes during the team’s two exhibition matchups. She averaged 17 points and 4.5 rebounds while playing no more than 20 minutes in either game. Chidom mentioned after the Pfeiffer game that she was excited to “play her natural position, the one she was recruited here to play.” On a team that has a ton of weapons, she has the potential to be a key role player off the bench.

DJ: I see Gorecki as the sleeper of the season. The freshman possesses a level of aggression that will bring fire to the offense and will keep her attacking the basket and wearing down defenses. When Gorecki’s hand gets hot, the combination of her and Greenwell on the wings will be tremendous advantage for Duke that will spread the floor and open up opportunities for Stevens and Chidom down low.

HT: I agree with Drew on this one. Gorecki is not as highly touted as some of her freshmen classmates, but she carries a valuable skillset that could keep her on the floor a lot this season. She scored 16 points in both on the team’s exhibition contests and shot more than 50 percent from the field across these two games. The Palatine, Ill., native can shoot the lights out from 3-point range, so she will stretch the floor whenever she is in the game. If Gorecki and Greenwell are on the court at the same time, those are two really good shooters on the perimeter that defenses won’t want to leave open. This would give Duke’s bigs room to work in the post, and if an opponent decides to double-team Stevens or Henson, Gorecki will be prepared receive a kick-out pass and knock down the open shot.

BF: Right along with Hank and Drew on this question. Gorecki has displayed great chemistry with Greenwell in the young Duke season, especially during the Blue-White scrimmage. She should see more time at the beginning of the season, especially as Salvadores continues to get back to game form, and I would not be surprised if Gorecki takes advantage of her extra minutes early in the season. Gorecki possesses a unique understanding of the game offensively and has the ability to create her own shot. If she gets hot, watch out.

Duke's non-conference slate will feature three games against teams currently ranked in the top 25. Which non-conference matchup are you most excited to see and why?

MG: There is no doubt that the game on Dec. 6 in Columbia, S.C. against the Gamecocks will be the most exciting non-conference matchup. South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley has turned the program into a perennial powerhouse and the team is ranked second in the AP preseason poll, trailing only reigning national champion Connecticut. After Friday’s season opener in Philadelphia, Duke only has two other true “road games” during their non-conference slate. Junior center Alaina Coates—a second-team All-SEC player last season—and the Gamecocks will be a formidable challenge, but a win could set the tone for the Blue Devils’ conference schedule and show the country that Duke is reloaded and ready to make some noise on the national scene once again.

DJ: I am most excited to see Duke take on No. 2 South Carolina in early December. Last year’s edition was a heart-breaker for the Blue Devils–who lost by one point after a last second put back by South Carolina—and it will be interesting to see how Duke responds to the loss. It will be the team's irst test of the season against top-end talent, and will give us a good idea of whether this year’s team belongs in the upper echelons of the rankings.

HT: This one is simple—it is easily the road game against the Gamecocks. South Carolina is ranked No. 2 in the preseason, and they beat Duke 51-50 in Durham last season after the Blue Devils held a four-point lead with less than 20 seconds remaining. Stevens and Henson combined for just seven points in that game, and the Gamecocks return strong post players Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson, who both made a big impact against Duke last season. The Blue Devils will have to match up better against the Gamecocks inside if they want to have a chance to pull off the upset on the road.

BF: I am going to go out on a limb here and pick Duke’s first real test of the season, which comes at home against No. 13 Texas A&M, to be the non-conference game to see. Like the Blue Devils, the Aggies are very much a guard-oriented team, except their guards are much more experienced. In a matchup of rookies against veterans, who will shine? Lambert and the rest of the young backcourt players will be tested in this game, and we will find out who can be a reliable option at the point guard position.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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