Before Duke begins its season Monday, our Dom Fenoglio and Martin Heintzelman debate Duke's prospects for the upcoming season. Read Dom's counterpoint to Martin’s grounded take here.
In some form or another, we have all been a part of it. Whether it is the “KaraEra” hashtag on social media or head coach Kara Lawson's energizing speech at Countdown to Craziness, the hype around Duke is palpable this year. Students and fans are excited, and while it is not necessarily a bad thing to be amped up for Lawson’s squad this year, perhaps a reality check is necessary.
This year, there are some valid reasons to be excited. 2021 ACC Freshman of the Year Shayeann Day-Wilson returns and will likely start every game while looking to have an even bigger impact on the offensive end. There are some strong graduate transfers coming in, and the freshman class looks solid with five-star guard Ashlon Jackson and four-star forward Shay Bollin both coming in as talented scorers who will likely see plenty of time on the floor this year.
It would be rash to forget about last season. The Blue Devils went a middling 17-13 overall but did not end their year on a high note. In fact, it was quite the opposite. They went 7-11 in conference play and lost five of their final six in the regular season before making a second-round exit in the ACC tournament and rejecting an NIT bid. Duke had a hot start, rolling out with nine wins at the beginning of the season, with some surprising victories against Iowa and Notre Dame coming in the earlier parts of the season too. Ultimately it fell short, struggling to win games down the stretch when it mattered.
Those returning starters will need to show some drastic improvement if the Blue Devils want to make any sort of tournament run. While Day-Wilson exploded last year, the rest of the team struggled. Guard Celeste Taylor and forward Elizabeth Balogun both faltered through the middle of the season, with low-scoring outings in several important conference losses that would act as tone-setters for the late portion of the season.
We cannot discuss this year’s team without exploring Lawson and her role. She is a good coach and a good leader—that is not up for debate. She seems confident in her squad, and in return, Lawson’s crew seems to have bought into her winning mentality.
As Taylor said, “Ultimately, the goal is to win a national championship and ACC championship. That's the goal. I think that if we just focus on the present moment, and just continue to get better each day, we can get there.”
Lawson’s charismatic presence has pervaded the squad, residing in every corner of the locker room. Her name carries weight not only across the country but in international circles following her stint as an assistant over the summer. But ultimately, Lawson will not be the one on the court. It will be up to her players to execute the game plan and come away with wins.
Therein lies the problem. This is a good team. A very good team, even. But is it a great team? A team capable of winning games at the highest level, down the stretch when those wins really matter? It certainly did not look like it last year. There is reason for hope this year with incoming transfers and freshmen talent.
The potential is absolutely there. Execution is what will make the difference this year.
Taking a realistic look at this team’s limits, the Blue Devils are a solid squad, but probably not a national championship contender. Duke could make a run into the NCAA tournament, if and only if everything goes entirely according to plan.
But at the end of the day, the hype around this crew outsizes the foundations of the team itself. This is a group with talent and potential, but not quite the type of talent that wins championships.
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