Since the 2013 season, the Duke women’s basketball team has been on a rollercoaster. There have been highs and lows, stars have come and left, and many players have fallen into a cycle of injury that just won’t seem to let them go.
But I have never, in the years that I have been watching this team, seen the kind of bad luck that the 2018-19 Blue Devil squad has faced.
Flash back to star point guard Kyra Lambert—one of the strongest All-American candidates in the ACC, floor general and stronghold for the 2015 recruiting class. After the graduation of Lexie Brown and Becca Greenwell, Lambert and fellow guard Haley Gorecki were charged with stepping into their shoes.
The transition would be difficult, with Lambert having sat an entire season and the Brown-Greenwell duo having combined for more than 45 percent of the Duke scoring from last season. But, it certainly would not be impossible.
With Lambert’s court vision and transition prowess, her threat would spread the floor enough to give Gorecki opportunities on the wing and junior Leaonna Odom space for as many 10-foot floaters as she wanted to put up.
Then the news came that Lambert was out for the season with another knee injury. And unfortunately for Duke, the high-value point guard wasn’t the only loss the team endured.
Freshman Rayah Craig, who played a key part in the Blue Devils’ fourth quarter comeback run at Northwestern, was declared ineligible for the spring semester.
Sophomore center Madison Treece, who provided another set of legs for Duke off the bench, declared she would transfer.
Mikayla Boykin, a highly-touted recruit out of high school and a much needed ball-handler, fell victim to another ACL tear.
What remains? A Blue Devil roster with only 10 names and a 1-6 ACC record.
The picture seems poor for Duke. The scoring is gone. The current roster contains three true freshmen and two players who clocked less than six minutes per game in less than 13 appearances in their college careers. Gorecki and Odom cannot singlehandedly support the Blue Devil offense.
A turnaround is not impossible, but three key things need to happen for Duke to right the ship. If they do happen, the Blue Devils will return to the successful program they were in the past few years and Duke might even be able to recover and get a spot in the NCAA tournament.
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The first is that the Blue Devils need to get comfortable with and perfect their zone defense. While Duke has a special affinity for more active types of defense, from match-up zone to man, it is imperative that the Blue Devils focus on containment defensively.
A strong zone will prevent teams from driving into the paint against relatively inexperienced Duke forwards. It will also help the younger Blue Devil roster work more as a unit and communicate better without the lack of communication becoming immediately detrimental to Duke’s success.
The second key for the Blue Devils is Jayda Adams. Adams has always been a spark for Duke on defense, which was especially key after losing Lambert last season. Her energy is imperative for the Blue Devils in maintaining momentum, something that Duke depends on heavily to win basketball games.
Adams might not be the headline name that people think about when they think about the Blue Devil women, but she will make or break this season for Duke. Adams can provide defensive energy, even within the context of a more passive zone.
Adams can also provide another perimeter option for the Blue Devils, as proven in her 4-of-5 mark beyond the arc in Duke’s 66-52 win against Wake Forest. But, more importantly for the Blue Devils’ style of play, she is another weapon in transition. With a guard shortage, Adams can use her speed and agility to get down the floor with Odom and Gorecki and improve Duke’s opportunity to get quick buckets.
The final key for the Blue Devils is guard rebounding, particularly on offense. Rebounding has been difficult for Duke this season so far and will only continue to be as the season progresses. But, the Blue Devils have shown signs of being very capable, particularly in rebounding from the guard position.
As the Duke offense circles more around shots from downtown—from the likes of Gorecki, Adams and freshman Miela Goodchild—rebounds do not drop close to the basket. For the Blue Devils to succeed, the pawns in the paint need to box out effectively so that the guards can contain the long rebounds.
The Duke women’s basketball team has been extremely unlucky and underwhelming this season, yes. But, the season is far from over. If the Blue Devils can perfect their zone, Jayda Adams can light up the court and guards can give the team second-chance opportunities, Duke will be able to compete with the other teams in the ACC and secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.