Changes leave Blue Devils seeking new identity
American literature is littered with stories of people hitting the open road in search of answers and identity. Duke is just adding the sports section to the genre.
Minus Gail Goestenkors, Lindsey Harding and Alison Bales, this season's Blue Devils drifted into Tampa last week for the second of what will be seven road games during the first three weeks of their season. (All told, the Blue Devils will play in the familiar confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium just four times before Christmas.) The game in Tampa -- an 89-52 win against a rebuilding South Florida side -- was far from dramatic. But the setting, at the venue that will host this season's Final Four, left first-year Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie envisioning a happy conclusion to her team's journey on and off the court.
"I told our team to breathe really heavy and sort of suck up the air in the place as something familiar to take home and want to come back to," McCallie half-joked.
Truth be told, not many people think the Blue Devils are likely to make a return trip to the St. Pete Times Forum in April. Not after they lost Harding, a contender for national player-of-the-year honors last season and the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. Not after they lost Bales, one of the most intimidating defensive presences in the lane in the past decade and herself a first-round WNBA draft pick. Certainly not after they lost Goestenkors -- the coach who was the architect of the program's ascendance during her 15 seasons in Durham -- to the bright lights and big budgets of the University of Texas.
Last year's stunning Sweet 16 loss to Rutgers represented a harsh new kind of reality -- one reinforced when instead of playing in the Final Four in Cleveland, Duke's players could only watch from home as Goestenkors accepted the job in Austin and Rutgers reached the title game. But all of those events also gave the returning players sole ownership of the program until McCallie came aboard. And just as college in general is supposed to prepare students to fend for themselves, the coaching turnover changed things for those left behind as much as the one who left. Gaining independence isn't always fun.
"I just kind of came into it with an open mind," junior Abby Waner said of the new regime. "You know, I've learned you can only concern yourself with the things you can control, so I feel like we took care of ourselves on the team and just making sure we're prepared for a new coach. I feel like we're a fairly disciplined team -- we listen well, so as long as we can control what we can, then the process will happen."
An ankle injury suffered in practice last week prevented Waner from playing in either the win against South Florida or a win against UNC Greensboro, but the Blue Devils still produced more points in both games than they did in all but six games last season.
Three different players -- Waner, Chante Black and Krystal Thomas -- took turns leading the team in scoring in the first three games. Joy Cheek, the team's second-leading scorer overall so far, didn't even crack that list, and neither Cheek nor Black started any of those games. Granted, the numbers will mean a lot more after Duke faces Purdue, Temple and possibly Stanford or Connecticut in the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam this week, but McCallie might actually have more depth at her disposal than Goestenkors had last season.
"I think offense this year will come from a lot of people," Cheek said. "We're all learning the system, and every day is just getting better with what we're learning, what we have and new things. But I think you'll find a lot of different people scoring."
Spreading the scoring load in the wake of the departures of Harding and Bales will be easier with freshman Jasmine Thomas in the backcourt. An almost absurdly athletic 5-foot-9 guard who totaled five blocks and nine steals in her first three college games, Thomas changes the pace of the offense when she takes over distribution duties from Emily Waner or Brittany Mitch (who, to their own credit, rank first and second, respectively, in assists after three games and have combined for a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio).
Even on a much more talented team than McCallie had in her second season at Michigan State, Thomas has the talent to produce an all-around impact similar to another freshman to whom the coach once turned over the keys to the offense: Kristin Haynie.
"It's hard to compare, because you know, Haynie is in the WNBA and Jas is a freshman," McCallie cautioned. "But I will say she has incredible potential to do so many things. Not just at the point guard position -- we also run her at the 2. So I think that just getting stronger, getting her stamina and her game speed and her experience will be key."
With three freshmen fighting for spots in the rotation along with Mitch, Keturah Jackson and Bridgette Mitchell playing greatly expanded roles as sophomores and Chante Black back after missing all of last season with a knee injury -- all for a new coach with a new system -- the Blue Devils might take some lumps in the Virgin Islands or in subsequent road games against Vanderbilt and Penn State and a rematch at home against Rutgers.
"By no means are we where we need to be," Waner said. "That being said, I think that's fairly good right now for us considering we're playing decent. We're still trying to find our own identity. We're still trying to get to know Coach P, to get to know our coaching staff. It's still very early in the season, and you also know there is only so much you can talk about before the season. Really you have to be on the court to be able to feel things out, feel out Coach P, get the new system down -- the new offenses, the new defenses -- so it's going to take some time. But luckily it's not March and we don't need to peak right now."
At times in recent seasons, the Blue Devils appeared to be as perfect a representation of their coach as any team in the country, and the results were an impressive array of regular-season wins, conference success and Final Four appearances. But in trying to take that final step, the Blue Devils didn't always seem to have their own identity on the court -- at least not when facing challenges like a Southwest Missouri State team that believed in Jackie Stiles, a Maryland team too young and too confident to doubt itself despite a second-half deficit, or a Rutgers team ready to trade defensive blows.
As strong a figure as McCallie is, and as much as success will depend on carrying out her philosophies on defense and rebounding, the sheer unfamiliarity that exists between coach and players means this season's team must find its own identity from within.
And if Duke finds it, there might be enough talent on hand for a return to Tampa.
"I always say our expectations our higher than anybody else's for us," Waner said. "And if they weren't, then we wouldn't be a successful program."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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