Another deep and talented Duke team is ready to take the court with its new leader.
By Charlene Curtis for theACC.com
Duke fans have grown accustomed to seeing their Blue Devils playing every season for a chance to advance to the NCAA Final Four. This season should be no different.
First-year Duke head coach, Joanne P. McCallie, sees her Blue Devils as a work in progress. With three returning starters and six other letterwinners back from last season's 32-2 team, McCallie has called her first few months on the Duke campus a time when she and the Blue Devils are "getting to know each other." McCallie is learning both strengths and weaknesses of the nine returning players and the potential of the nation's third best recruiting class.
"I love our talent, and I love our potential depth," said McCallie. "There are no limits, but there's a lot of work to be done."
That work starts with players learning a new system and understanding the expectations of their new head coach. "We have challenged the players to come out and practice with a bit of an attitude," McCallie said. "Focus is so important. It didn't take much talking to see immediate change about how we were going to approach practice. The ability to stay focused for longer has increased."
The Duke players have accepted the challenge. "Our biggest thing is just working extra hard every day in practice and taking practice one day at a time trying to get better at every thing that we do," said senior Wanisha Smith.
Gone are the ACC Player of the Year and All-American Lindsey Harding and the nation's leading shot blocker Allison Bales. But back are starters Smith (5-11, G) and Abby Waner (5-10, Jr., G) on the perimeter and Carrem Gay (6-2, Jr., F) in the paint. Also, returning after a red-shirt injury year is Chante Black (6-5, Jr., C).
Black started 12 games in her sophomore season while making 54.0 percent of her field goal attempts and registering 65 blocks along with her 6.1 rebounds per game. Gay started all 34 games last season as a sophomore. She made 58.1 of her field goal attempts while averaging 8.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Joy Cheek (6-1, So., F) played 15 minutes a game last season at the four position. With the return of a healthy Black to the interior, Cheek may spend some of her time on the perimeter.
Abby Waner was the team's leading scorer a year ago, averaging 14.1 points per game. Both she and Smith shared ball handling responsibilities with Harding. Waner led the team in steals with 85, and Smith led the team in assists with 135. The Blue Devils should get help in the backcourt from senior Emily Waner and freshman sensation Jasmine Thomas.
Jasmine Thomas, Karima Christmas, and Krystal Thomas make up the stellar freshman class. All three were high school All-Americans, and all three could be on the ACC All-Freshman Team at the end of the season. Jasmine Thomas (5-9, G, from Fairfax, Va.) is a "very savvy and smart player," according to McCallie. She was a starter on the gold medal winning USA U19 World Championship Team this summer. Jasmine has the athleticism, skills, and competitive spirit to land her in the starting rotation early in the season.
Krystal Thomas (6-4, C, from Orlando, Fla.) hit 60.4 percent of her field goals on the same USA team this summer. She is athletic and skilled. She rebounds well, runs the floor well, and can block shots. "They bring a lot of speed and athleticism," said Smith when speaking about the difference of having Krystal and Chante in the paint. "It's going to be a different look for us and really good for our team."
Opponents could be forced to play the game on the perimeter when Krystal and Black are on the floor together. Expect blocked shot records to fall this season.
Christmas (5-11, F/G), the third player in the outstanding freshman class, has the ability to play both forward positions because of her explosiveness to the basket and her rebounding ability. She will add to the depth of the Blue Devils on the perimeter.
The Blue Devils have just a few more days before the "getting to know each other" phase moves to a display of what the McCallie-led Duke team will be. Prior to the start of the season when the focus was on practices and conditioning, McCallie was pleased with the progress of her players but was cautious about praising them too much. "Games are a celebration of who we are, and we don't have any of those celebrations right now," she said. "So it's all about practice."
Basketball fans alike are eagerly waiting the dawn of the new era of Duke Basketball. Before adding McCallie to the picture, Duke Basketball was going to be different anyway. Harding and Bales are now in the WNBA. Black returns after a year of rehabilitating her surgically repaired knee. And three more former high school All-Americans join the mix and will compete for playing time.
Opening day is just around the corner. The Joanne P. McCallie era starts on November 11th. Let the celebration begin.