Armistice Day 2008
Duke Zone Lassos Cowgirls, 77-68
For Duke, the window is open in 2008-09. If last year was about the way circumstance, bad luck and injuries slowed the development of the team, this season could be about the way the ACC and the nation are shaping up to help Duke have a great year. With three productive seniors, a great deal of depth, quickness at every position and a year's adjustment for coaches and players to a new way of doing things, the Devils might not have a better chance of winning the ACC and going to the Final Four for quite some time. Let's break down the various factors that would seem to be in Duke's favor and what one should expect from this year's team.
Last year was a struggle in part because of a difficult schedule, with a number of road games against tough opponents. The opposition wasn't feeling sorry for Duke as they went through a transition period and dealt with the losses of key personnel; indeed, they were happy for a chance at payback. Of Duke's 10 losses, 9 came against ranked opponents. The Devils were good, but they had lost their edge against the nation's elite.
By contrast, Duke has lost only one regular: Wanisha Smith. Their biggest problem, dealing with huge opposing frontcourts, will be greatly eased. Indeed, few teams in the country will have frontcourts that match Duke's size, quickness and depth.
What will that rotation be, and what roles should we expect to see divvied out? Black, a candiate for all the major national awards, will be the team's focal point.
The offense will depend heavily on the frontcourt for scoring, so a big key will be having players get them the ball. Jasmine Thomas looks to be in greater control as a sophomore and in better position to get the ball where it's needed. Her chemistry with backup center Krystal Thomas is especially promising. Thomas is not afraid to shoot but her shot is still erratic. If Duke is going to avoid getting zoned to death, she'll need to hit some open shots. Of course, Abby Waner is the other major piece of the offense. She looks fresh and rested after a difficult season.
That starting five will look to push the ball. Look for Duke to play a lot of man-to-man defense and play the passing lanes for bad passes. The Devils will also pressure the ball much more than last year and bring in a number of players to do so. The key bench contributors at the moment will be Krystal Thomas, Keturah Jackson and Karima Christmas. Thomas is still healing from a knee injury, but at this point, her body is just trying to get used to doing things like planting her foot to spin quickly, or applying a lot of pressure on her knee to leap. As she learns to trust her knee again, Krystal will look more and more fluid.
Keturah Jackson is a fine defender who was inefficient on offense last season; her stock-in-trade was taking off-balance jumpers. She looks much more focused on offense thus far this year. Her ballhandling has greatly improved, which will be crucial given the sort of lineups Duke plans to run. The form on her jumper is much smoother and one can see that she's more patient. KJ is penetrating and drawing defenders to dish at the last second to a cutting teammate. She's also a ferocious perimeter defender, the player most likely to force a steal. Look for her to step in at 1, 2 or 3 at times. If she can hit open shots, she'll get all the minutes she can handle.
Karima Christmas is greatly improved as a soph and brings an interesting set of skills to the table. She's interchangeable at 3 or 4 at both ends. As a wing, she loves to attack the basket. Her improved free throw stroke will make that an attractive option for Duke. As a post, she's a tremendous rebounder, plays physically and has a lot of strength. The key for Christmas is just a small amount of restraint: don't blow defensive assignments by overplaying, be physical but don't foul, attack the basket but keep control of the ball. Like Jackson, she'll need to show an improved jumper in order to get huge minutes.
Duke has a lot of depth at wing and post as a result of the greater experience and versatility of that trio. The last player in the extended rotation is yet to be determined, but Shay Selby is a strong candidate. She gives Duke a penetrating guard who can pass and is extremely offensive-minded. The Devils will need a pure scorer to balance out the most defensive-minded reserves. Selby is very quick and will fit right in with an uptempo game, but she'll also need to work on her shot and shot selection. It will take time to fit in with her new teammates and figure out when to shoot and when to pass. She has the most potential of the three frosh to become an immediate contributor.
Duke will try to pressure opponents as much as possible. They'll use the zone against certain teams but shouldn't cede their superior height and quickness over to opponents with a zone. Of course, an active matchup zone with players of Duke's length and lateral quickness could be very effective if the players are in constant attack mode. Playing zone last year dulled some of the team's aggressive instincts, especially since McCalllie wasn't entirely comfortable coaching up-tempo defense. The team is already clicking on both ends better than they did a season ago at this early stage.
There is one major concern, however: leadership. Duke lacks a central leadership figure, which is one reason why McCallie stresses that "everyone is a leader" on this team. Black and Gay are both reserved figures, while Waner is almost too far in the opposite direction. The most natural leaders on the team are Jasmine & Krystal Thomas, and they're not quite in a position to assume that mantle. The way this sort of thing plays out in a game is in terms of communication. If a team isn't talking on defense, then switches aren't made, help doesn't come and fouls are committed.
Duke has the most quality depth in the ACC, one of the top two frontcourts, a solid platoon of guards, good size and a variety of ways to hurt an opponent. They hope to make pressure defense their calling card while still being able to shut down an opponent in the halfcourt. The posts will get the lion's share of shots but if the team can convert defense into offense, then lots of players will be scoring. Everything's lining up for Duke to have a great season, and it's up to the players and coaches to convert the dream into reality. Fans should expect a much better season than last year at minimum, with the potential for this to become a great year. It would be only fitting if Duke went back to the Final Four in this year of the 10-year anniversary of the Devils' first Final Four squad.
Editor's Note: In addition to our usual coverage, this year we will be looking back at the 1999 and 1984 Duke squads, titled "DWHoops Minus 10" and "DWHoops Minus 25" respectively. We hope you will enjoy this expanded coverage of Duke's past players and teams.
Armistice Day 2008
Duke Zone Lassos Cowgirls, 77-68