Duke is set to start its 2016-17 season looking to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015 after injuries derailed the Blue Devils down the stretch last year. The Chronicle's women's basketball writers made predictions for the season ahead of the team's first exhibition game Sunday.
Ben Leonard: 24-6—There’s no doubt about it: Duke will be much improved from last season. With the additions of Lexie Brown and Leaonna Odom, the Blue Devils will be more of an up-tempo team than in the past and will be able to score on the fast break. This team has the talent to have a real shot to contend in the ACC if the cards fall in its favor. With a favorable home schedule and a relatively weak nonconference schedule this season, the Blue Devils will return to the NCAA tournament once again with arguably the best backcourt in the nation.
Andrew Donohue: 24-6—I am cautiously optimistic about what this Duke team can do this season. The addition of Odom coupled with Brown becoming eligible has injected speed and skill into the Blue Devil rotation. Duke should have one of the best backcourts in the country with Brown, Kyra Lambert and Rebecca Greenwell manning the guard spots. If the Blue Devils can build on their team chemistry and limit turnovers as well as keep key contributors healthy, this team has a chance to do something special and contend for the ACC championship.
Emily Davis: 22-8—Although Duke lost Azurá Stevens, Angela Salvadores and Amber Henson in the offseason, it has arguably improved on last year's team, with Odom and Brown entering the fold. If the Blue Devils can stay healthy, they will be able to win the games they are expected to win in the ACC and will compete with the five teams picked to finish ahead of them in the conference with the exception of perennial juggernaut Notre Dame. There are a few non-conference opponents that will give Duke a challenge, but the Blue Devils should be able to contend with opponents like Vanderbilt, Villanova and Rutgers this year.
Riley Pfaff: 22-8—The Blue Devils will be the beneficiaries of several high-profile newcomers this year, as Brown and Odom will bring added depth and versatility to an already strong Duke lineup. Nonconference matchups against South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Villanova and Kentucky will give an early idea of what this team is capable of, but don’t expect the Blue Devils to back down from the challenge. If Duke can pick up a couple of wins against these early opponents, it will be in good shape once ACC play begins, when the Blue Devils should be able to hang with almost any team in the conference.
Cole Winton: 26-4—Despite Duke not being ranked in the AP preseason top-25 poll, I see the Blue Devils having a very strong turnaround season. Breaking down the schedule, the team faces just one major out-of-conference test when it faces preseason No. 4 South Carolina at home Dec. 4. With the return of a healthy Greenwell and Brown being cleared to play, Duke will have a great backcourt to pair with a McDonald’s All-American in Odom.
BL: 12-4—Unlike last year, Duke will take care of business in the games that it should, save for one slipup. The Blue Devils will be unable to keep up with the likes of Notre Dame, Louisville, and Florida State, but will be able to soundly dispatch the mid-tier ACC teams like N.C. State and Georgia Tech that they struggled with last season. This team is too deep and talented to lose more than four games in conference play this season, which could vault them into the top four in the conference.
AD: 12-4—The Blue Devils have the talent to compete with any team in the ACC except for maybe Notre Dame. They should take care of business against the bottom half of the conference and pose stiff tests for the elite. Looking through the schedule, it is hard to find games that the Blue Devils should not be at least competitive in, and I believe they will steal a couple of these close games and finish in the top five of the conference.
ED: 12-4—Duke will compete just as expected in the ACC, and it will beat one of the five ACC teams ranked ahead of it. The Blue Devils are just too deep if they stay healthy to struggle against opponents like Georgia Tech and Virginia. I think the team will do even better in the ACC tournament than in the ACC overall, as tournament play has plagued many ACC teams in the past and Duke might be able to take advantage.
RP: 11-5—Setting aside for a moment conference favorites Notre Dame and Louisville, who are unlikely to be challenged by the Blue Devils, Duke will be able to keep up with the other preseason top-25 ACC teams in Florida State, Miami and Syracuse. Although trips to Tallahassee, Fla., and Raleigh early in the conference schedule will be tough, the Blue Devils will be able to challenge the Seminoles and N.C. State in both road games and set the tone for the rest of the ACC season. When they play host to Miami and Syracuse later in the year, they will have the chemistry and experience to potentially knock off two other ACC rivals and cement their position among the top teams in the ACC.
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CW: 13-3—The ACC is arguably the strongest conference in the country with competitors like Notre Dame, Louisville, Florida State, Miami and Syracuse all on the conference schedule for the Blue Devils this season. The team is still relatively young but has the talent to compete with some of the best in the country, as Greenwell averaged double figures in scoring last year and Brown was an All-American at Maryland two years ago.
Best nonconference win
BL: Villanova—Outside of my bold upset pick for this season, Duke’s best nonconference win will be against the Wildcats. The Blue Devils will play Kentucky close but ultimately fall, but take down Villanova the game before. Like Duke, the Wildcats have a strong backcourt, but lack the size and skill to match up with the Blue Devils in the interior. It should be close, but expect Duke to hold a key advantage on the boards, which will give it the win.
AD: Kentucky—The Blue Devils will close the nonconference season on a high note with a victory against Kentucky. Duke only lost by 10 last year despite getting almost zero production from Greenwell. That will not be the case this time around, as the 6-foot-2 guard will be motivated to lead the Blue Devils to a victory against her home state school. Having the game in the friendly confines of Cameron will also give the Blue Devils an extra boost.
ED: Villanova—The strongest nonconference win for the Blue Devils this year will come against the Wildcats. Villanova had a season very similar to Duke’s last year, but accepted a bid to the WNIT. The Wildcats played an easier schedule last year than Duke did, but still will be fairly evenly matched this season. I expect Greenwell to outplay Villanova's talented backcourt and knock down a few 3-pointers to lead the Blue Devils to victory.
RP: Villanova—As well as the Blue Devils played last season against Kentucky on the road, the Wildcats are simply too experienced for Duke to pull an upset at home in nonconference play. But the Blue Devils will knock off another Wildcats team when they take on Big East foe Villanova to pick up a solid win in their tough nonconference schedule. After a tough loss to South Carolina, the Blue Devils will pick up some momentum against Elon and be ready to for the Wildcats early in the season.
CW: Kentucky—Although Duke’s non-conference schedule isn’t the strongest, it still faces tough tests in South Carolina and Kentucky. The Blue Devils have yet to prove they have the offensive firepower to upset the Gamecocks, but a win against a Kentucky squad that reached the Sweet 16 last year is entirely possible. The Wildcats are undersized with a 6-foot-3 center, and the Blue Devils feature a roster that is deep with bigs.
Best conference win
BL: Miami—Duke didn’t beat a ranked team in ACC play—or outside of it, for that matter—last season, and that is going to change this year when it takes down Miami. I don’t think the Blue Devils can knock off Louisville, Notre Dame or even Florida State, but the Hurricanes should be squarely in Duke’s sweet spot. After a nightmarish 11-point first half with leading scorer Azura Stevens sidelined last February, the Blue Devils almost rallied to knock off the Hurricanes on the road last season. Duke will finish the job this time around.
AD: Miami—The Blue Devils had a rough time in conference play last season, losing to every team that finished above them in the standings. That will not be the case this year, however, as Duke will knock off Miami. The Blue Devils almost overcame the Hurricanes on the road last season despite missing 24 shots in a row at one point. The offense will be better this time around and Duke will be able to pull out a close victory.
ED: Louisville— Duke should find a way to beat of the teams in the top five in the ACC, and I believe this team is Louisville. The Blue Devils can exploit mismatches in the backcourt against the Cardinals, who finished 15-1 in ACC play last year but struggled early in the season against several middling nonconference opponents. Louisville is not unbeatable and has to face Duke on the road early in conference play right after playing two strong opponents—Vanderbilt and Syracuse.
RP: Florida State—Like Duke, Florida State will have one of the best backcourts in the country this year. Throw in the team’s leading scorer from last year, forward Shakayla Thomas, and the Seminoles pose a serious threat to be a dark-horse pick to win the conference once the ACC tournament rolls around. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils will go into Tallahassee and pull off the upset early in the season in a battle of the backcourts, as Brown, Greenwell and Lambert will contain Leticia Romero and the rest of the Seminoles guards en route to a close victory for Duke.
CW: Syracuse—In last year’s loss to Syracuse, the Blue Devils totaled 32 turnovers against the Orange. I’m expecting a much more mature Greenwell to take care of the ball along with new arrival Brown in the backcourt, as Duke tries to solve its turnover woes. Despite Syracuse’s appearance in the national championship game last season, it will fall to Duke in Cameron.
Potential upset to watch out for
BL: South Carolina—I’m going to go bold here: Duke can knock off South Carolina this year. Having to replace three starters this season, the Gamecocks might not have completely coalesced before having to travel to play the Blue Devils. Even with an inferior roster last year that suffered an off shooting night, Duke held a fourth quarter lead against South Carolina on the road in front of a sellout crowd of nearly 18,000—the Blue Devils have proven that they match up well with the Gamecocks. In the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke has a great chance to shock the college basketball world.
AD: Syracuse—The Blue Devils remember the humiliating blowout loss to Syracuse last year on the road. That defeat was in many ways the low point of the season, and Duke will be desperate to set things right when the Orange come to Cameron Indoor Stadium. This could be a good old-fashioned revenge game for the Blue Devils, and Rebecca Greenwell, who was 3-for-12 from the field in the game last season, will want to make up for that and lead her team to a convincing victory.
ED: Kentucky—There is potential that Duke will upset Kentucky this year, but it will again depend on Greenwell—a Kentucky native—to step up. Facing the Wildcats has been Greenwell’s Achilles' heel in the past, but she might not feel the pressure as much at home in Cameron. Greenwell played 38 minutes in last year's 10-point loss and only scored one point. This would be a major upset, but now that Greenwell has played Kentucky twice in her career, she could be primed for a breakout game to fuel a surprising win.
RP: Kentucky—Although it is unlikely to occur, the Blue Devils will have a golden opportunity to take down an SEC powerhouse when Kentucky visits Durham in Duke’s final nonconference game of the season. All-SEC guard Makayla Epps will be hard to contain, but if Duke can control the Wildcats on offense and get Greenwell open looks from the outside, the Blue Devils could pull a major upset and gain a lot of momentum heading into ACC play.
CW: Louisville—I know I’m reaching a bit here, but I think Duke could pull out a home win against Louisville. After being upset by DePaul in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season, Louisville’s roster has seen a good amount of turnaround. The team now features six freshmen who will need to help out Myisha Hines-Allen if Louisville is to beat the Blue Devils for a second straight year.
BL: Lexie Brown—Greenwell has been the glue holding this team together during the last two years. She will still be indispensable this season, but Brown will be just a tad more valuable. A vocal leader and former All-American at Maryland, she’ll invigorate this team with new energy and stellar 3-point shooting as the leader of one of the best backcourts in the nation. Sharing the floor with Lambert will only set her up for better shots and make the offense flow more smoothly.
AD: Lexie Brown—The obvious choice is also the correct one. Brown will be the Blue Devils’ best player and leader on the floor. Her combination of speed and vision is unique on the team, and she could see an uptick from the 4.5 assists she averaged her last year at Maryland with Greenwell spotting up for open 3-pointers on the wing. Brown will also be instrumental in reducing the turnover problems that have plagued the Blue Devils in the past. Duke will go as far as Brown can take it this year.
ED: Rebecca Greenwell—Even with Brown's arrival on the scene, I still think Greenwell will be Duke’s MVP this season. She is in the top 10 in school history in career free-throw percentage, 3-point percentage and 3-pointers made, and she has only played two years. She is a talented scorer from anywhere on the court and is also never afraid to put her body on the line on defense to dive for a loose ball.
RP: Rebecca Greenwell—After two years of leading Duke from the guard position, Greenwell will step up after Brown's arrival to be the Blue Devils’ most valuable player this year. Greenwell has already proven herself to be a consistent threat from the outside, as she led the team in 3-pointers and 3-point percentage last year. With Brown now in the mix at guard, Greenwell will have more flexibility at the guard position to work off the ball and be able to get more open looks for herself. Besides her ability to take control of a game from beyond the arc, she is also a tough defender and can share the ball as well, averaging 2.1 assists per game last season.
CW: Rebecca Greenwell—Although some might look for Brown to lead Duke this season, I’m going with Greenwell as the team MVP. The redshirt junior has already proven to fit in with head coach Joanne P. McCallie’s system and is coming off a strong year, having averaged more than 15 points and nearly six rebounds per game to go along with 41.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc. If she hadn’t gone down with an injury toward the end of the season, the Blue Devils may have tasted the NCAA tournament. I’m counting on the proven Greenwell to lead the team over an uncertainty in Brown.
Most improved player
BL: Kyra Lambert—For most point guards, the addition of an All-American floor general would spell their demise. Not for Lambert. Brown's presence will elevate her passing and give her more open looks to score. Expect increased production from the Lambert, as the sophomore opens up Duke's offense and builds on the momentum she created in her freshman season.
AD: Kyra Lambert—Lambert was a solid contributor as a freshman, but will make a big leap this year and become an offensive threat as well as a defensive menace. Lambert is extremely quick and has improved both her shooting and her understanding of the offense. The new up-tempo system suits her skills perfectly, and she will emerge as a leader of this team sooner rather than later.
ED: Erin Mathias—There are a lot of candidates for this spot, but I think the most improved performance this year will come from Mathias. The 6-foot-4 center has improved her mobility, strength and perimeter shooting in the offseason. It will be very hard to replace Stevens down low, and the posts will need to step up to fill that void. Mathias has the potential to do this on the boards and could wind up seeing the floor a lot and having a successful season.
RP: Erin Mathias—Last season, Mathias averaged only 8.4 minutes per game. This year, she will step up in a big way and become a dynamic option for McCallie off the bench. The junior forward has the ability to step out and shoot when needed as well as crash the boards, and as she becomes more aggressive, she will put herself in position to have a big impact in the paint as well, giving the Blue Devils valuable depth behind Kendall Cooper and Oderah Chidom.
CW: Kyra Lambert—After receiving some extra playing time due to the slew of injuries Duke faced last season, Lambert is primed for a breakout campaign. Despite averaging just more than six points per game, Lambert showed she has a knack for big games, as she dropped 16 and 14 points against South Carolina and North Carolina, respectively. Look for her to use her athleticism to succeed against the ACC throughout the season.