Before Duke begins its season Monday, our Dom Fenoglio and Martin Heintzelman debate Duke's prospects for the upcoming season. Read Martin's counterpoint to Dom's sunny outlook here.
If you have ever heard Duke head coach Kara Lawson speak, chances are you walked away inspired. A hallmark of great coaches, Lawson has a way of articulating her points that has a way of making you believe what she is saying. That being said, I believe in the Blue Devils this year.
Duke is coming off a disappointing season that showed promise at times, peaking in the AP Top 25 at No. 15, but ultimately ended with a second-round loss in the ACC tournament to Miami and no NCAA tournament bid. However, its roster looks very different this year with a flurry of transfers and three freshmen. With new talent comes new hopes and expectations, including the Blue Devils’ forecast at seventh in the ACC poll, their highest projected ranking since 2019.
How high can our expectations be for a team with so little experience playing together? This newness is precisely what gives Duke an advantage this year: it is not very often that teams have the chance to make a complete overhaul.
The Blue Devils had their fair share of issues last year, losing games they should have won down the stretch and consistently underperforming relative to their talent level. This year’s team can forget about those problems and turn a new leaf. With notable additions at nearly every position, including Oregon State transfers Kennedy Brown and Taya Corosdale in the frontcourt alongside freshman Ashlon Jackson and Georgia transfer Reigan Richardson in the backcourt, Duke is poised to do just that.
A huge advantage brought in by the new additions is a level of versatility that Duke did not have last year. Their roster is deep. Lawson will have options at every position and added size and athleticism will make the Blue Devils far more formidable defensively.
This is the beauty of bringing in so many new weapons. Lawson has the chance to test out players in situations, see who works well together and ultimately create a lineup that will be a force to be reckoned with. While some may argue that this process will take time, Duke can lean on its star and leader, sophomore Shayeann Day-Wilson.
The leading scorer for the Blue Devils last season, Day-Wilson will again man the point this year. Her performance a year ago was monumental, as she turned in the tenth most points ever by a Blue Devil and was named ACC Freshman of the Year, the fifth Duke player to receive that honor.
Day-Wilson, at 19 years old, is essential to Duke’s success this year. Her capacity as a leader will be tested not only by her poise running the offense, but also by managing the influx of new players.
It will become apparent from game one that Day-Wilson is up to this challenge. It takes a special kind of player to excel as a freshman point guard in the ACC, one of the most competitive conferences in the nation. Fans should have every reason to believe that Day-Wilson will continue to perform with the best.
So, with new pieces and returning leaders, how far can Duke go? I don’t want to appear overzealous, but I would argue that the sky's the limit. Certainly, with regards to talent and depth, Duke can line up with any team in the country. But even as a firm believer in their potential, I know the Blue Devils will run into some bumps along the way.
As I mentioned, the ACC is unforgiving. It is inevitable that Duke will face adversity, especially when facing the nation’s preseason No. 7 and No. 10 teams in Louisville and North Carolina State early in the conference season. In order to avoid falling into a hole like the Blue Devils did last season, they will have to lean on their depth. It will take far more than another stellar season from Day-Wilson for Duke to sit near the top of the ACC by season’s end. But, if any coach can corral a team together, it is Lawson.
Lawson has gained experience coaching with the USA 3-on-3 and 5-on-5 national teams ahead of Duke’s season, which she said in the team’s preseason press conference helped her grow as a coach. The same applies to each player on the team; as they practice day in and day out with each other, they will continue to improve thanks to their diverse and complementary playstyles.
The Blue Devils will surprise the nation and greatly outperform expectations. By regular season’s end, this year’s squad will be poised to not only reach the NCAA tournament but advance past the first weekend; I believe that we will know by midseason whether Duke is capable of doing that.
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