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Point: Healthy returners will lead Duke women's basketball back to the NCAA tournament

<p>The Blue Devils will look to return to the NCAA tournament for the 24th time in 25 seasons.</p>

The Blue Devils will look to return to the NCAA tournament for the 24th time in 25 seasons.

Two of our women's basketball beats Evan Kolin and Glen Morgenstern engage in a point/counterpoint debating whether or not the Blue Devils will return to the NCAA tournament. Here is Evan's argument for why Duke will make it back to March Madness, to read the counterpoint, click here:

Last spring, Duke men’s basketball defeated Syracuse to clinch its sixth Elite Eight berth since the turn of the century. But what many Duke fans don’t remember is that four days earlier, the Blue Devil women’s team demolished Georgia en route to its 14th Sweet Sixteen appearance in that same time period.

Duke’s men’s squad enters the 2018-19 season with more hype than ever. Its female counterparts, however, have received the opposite treatment. With sweet-shooting seniors Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell—who accounted for over 40 percent of the Blue Devils’ offensive production last season—drafted into the WNBA, many scouts don’t believe Duke will even make it back into the NCAA tournament, yet alone reach the Sweet Sixteen. 

Those scouts, however, are wrong. Yes, the Splash Sisters—as Brown and Greenwell were dubbed—are a duo that no team could even attempt to replace. But, assuming this year’s Blue Devils won’t even return to the NCAA tournament is an insult to the players ready to step up in their absence. 

Case one: guard Haley Gorecki. Gorecki averaged 11 points per game last year as the team’s third option, and has shown that she’s more than ready to lead Duke on the offensive end. The redshirt junior led the Blue Devils with 24 points in the team’s annual Blue/White scrimmage, including a 4-for-4 start from downtown. A five-star recruit from the Class of 2015, Gorecki has been preparing to become the team’s go-to option ever since she stepped foot in Durham. So instead of seeing Brown and Greenwell’s departures as a death sentence to Duke’s tournament dreams, look at it more as a passing of the torch, with Gorecki now ready to carry the team to that same promised land.

The Palatine, Ill., native isn’t the only one about to take an advantage of an increased role in the Blue Devils’ offense, however. In Duke’s run to the Sweet Sixteen last year, it actually wasn’t Brown or Greenwell who led the team in scoring. Rather, it was forward Leaonna Odom. The Lompoc, Calif., native averaged 21 points during the Blue Devils’ three tournament contests, adding in seven rebounds per game as well.

During the 2017-18 regular season, Odom averaged 9.6 points per game—fourth on the team. But as she proved in the NCAA tournament, the now-redshirt junior has the talent to be a force if given more opportunities on the offensive end. And this year, she will get that opportunity.

Of course, former role players stepping up as team leaders is only part of the reason why Duke will return to its third consecutive NCAA tournament despite the losses of Brown and Greenwell. I mean, both Gorecki and Odom were part of last year’s squad, so what have the Blue Devils done to try and improve their roster entering this season?

Two words: Kyra Lambert. Well, she’s not exactly an addition to the roster, but an improvement upon last year’s depth chart nonetheless. After a 2016-17 campaign that saw the 5-foot-9 point guard average 7.8 points per game while placing second on the team with 3.5 assists per contest, Lambert chose to redshirt all of last season while recovering from a torn ACL. And while the Cibolo, Texas, product isn’t back on the court just yet, she’s ready to make up for lost time with a monster junior season, initiated by a spot on the Nancy Lieberman Award watch list as one of the top twenty point guards in the country.

Furthermore, Duke has a plethora of newcomers ready to make an impact. Redshirt freshman guard Mikayla Boykin should return to the court soon after courting an ACL injury of her own, ready to prove why she was rated as the No. 21 overall recruit from the class of 2015. In addition, the Blue Devils add 6-foot-6 center Uchenna Nwoke, giving the team a potential size advantage against many of their ACC foes.

So yes, Duke lost its top two players from last year’s roster. But the Blue Devils have had to replace lost talent before, as has every single team in the country. And with 23 NCAA tournament berths over the past 24 years, Duke has done that better than most other programs. 

This year’s team may have its doubters. But with a wave of underclassmen ready to step up and the return of one of the nation’s top point guards, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind the Blue Devils will make it 24 out of 25.

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