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Armistice Day 2008
 
Duke Zone Lassos Cowgirls, 77-68
The Nutshell
Duke 2008-09 Season Preview
By Rob Clough
November 12, 2008

A Look Ahead at the Season to Come


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.
See Ya Candace, Erlana, et al.
Of course, this meant going up against the national champs in Tennessee, a surprising Vandy club, the UConn powerhouse and UNC & Maryland squads that featured some of their best players ever as seniors. Duke's players took their lumps and tried to grow as best as possible, and they earned a measure of redemption with an upset win over Maryland in the ACC Semifinals and by earning a trip to the Sweet Sixteen. The good news for Duke this year is that nearly every one of their opponents lost key players. The Heels and Terps in particular were gutted of their inside strength and leadership. Virtually every significant non-conference opponent will be faced at home. The biggest exception, Tennessee, is always talented but lost its entire starting five.

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.
One key to watch this season his how Duke adjusts from running a three-guard lineup with Smith to having a more traditional forward in the game like Carrem Gay. Another key to watch is the way coach McCallie employs the versatility of her players. McCallie spent the first ten games of last season simply trying to figure out what she had on the court, which led to a lot of chaos in the rotations and overall sloppiness. That tightened up as the season went on but still put Duke behind the nation's other highly ranked teams. That won't be the case this season; McCallie noted that she plans to use an 8 or 9 player rotation. Having a full summer in Durham (and on the recruiting trail) also certainly helped, a luxury she didn't have last summer when she was coaching internationally.

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 run through her, and she'll have a lot of freedom. Look for her to set up high or low and even take the occasional three pointer. Improving her ballhandling and passing will be imperative, but she's otherwise ready to dominate. Joy Cheek and Gay will most likely start in the frontcourt. Cheek established herself as a go-to player last season because of her toughness and willingness to get physical. Her offensive skills will allow her to shoot, drive or post up. She'll play a lot of wing on offense. Cheek must stay assertive at both ends and keep her intensity up; she has a tendency to float in and out of the game at times. I expect her to post big numbers on offense and bolster her rebounding as well. Gay will stay in the post on offense where she's comfortable, occasionally flashing out to the foul line (and beyond) for a jump shot. She's trying to extend her range out to three and improve her ballhandling, but Gay would be best served staying in the low block on offense where she's most effective. Defensively, her wingspan, lateral quickness and aggressiveness make her an ideal potential wing stopper. Watch her extend Duke's defense out to the three point line and attack ballhandlers.

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.
Her manic energy on the floor is undiminished, as she dives for loose balls and hustles after steals. Her passing is also excellent, along with her court awareness. How Duke sets her up for her shot will be a major item to watch. The Devils didn't set a lot of screens for her last year, which forced some awkward shooting. Like many of Duke's other guards, her sense of balance was off. Her form looked rushed--she looked as though she had to shoot quicker than she actually needed to, and the result was shooting off-balance. Waner will be fine if she just relaxes, squares her shoulders and takes her time. Her range is so deep that she'll have plenty of time to shoot. At the same time, it will be up to the posts to pass out when they're double-teamed or see Waner wide open to get her the ball. There was very little reversing of the basketball last season, a staple of past Duke teams, and that is something I hope to see brought back this campaign.

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.

This is not to say that the rest of the bench doesn't have a chance to contribute. Bridgette Mitchell is now a veteran who's being caught up in a logjam at wing. Duke would be wise to try to use her at post if possible on offense and wing on defense; she's a fine offensive rebounder and is quick enough to guard wings. Chelsea Hopkins is very quick and aggressive and would be a perfect player to insert when Duke goes to a full court press. Kathleen Scheer is tall and long for a guard, though her instincts right now seem to put her at post. She is a fine shooter who simply needs to gain experience and comfort on the floor. Compared to last season, Duke's schedule this year is far better suited for the freshmen to gain experience early - but with a team loaded with veterans it will be difficult for them to log significant minutes against elite foes.

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.
If a team isn't talking on offense, then passes aren't made and bad shots are taken. Black and Waner have to step out of their respective comfort zones to become the vocal leaders the team needs. Black has to hold down the post and direct traffic inside and can't be afraid to get loud. Waner has to restrain her emotions while making sure the guards are in the right place at the right time. Both need to embrace the "next play" philosophy: for Black, it means keeping a dominating mindset even if she's struggling. For Waner, it means maintaining the effort of shrugging off mistakes and focusing only on the action at hand.

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
The Nutshell

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