- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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I grew up playing with a Tog'l set, not Legos. Tog'ls were manufactured for only a few years in the late 1960s-early 1970s before being squashed by consumer favoritism for Legos. However, we Tog'l-ites would point out that Tog'ls had the advantage of connecting on all sides, plus the set had things like car wheels, axles, plastic body parts, lots of widgets, different connector things, windows and little yellow air pumps with tubing.
The picture on the front of the box showed two kids with a big Tog'l windmill, which was beyond my construction capacity, and the book inside had instructions for making stuff like a hopping giraffe. I could never quite get my giraffe to really look right nor hop the way the diagram suggested, and thus had a pretty early clue my desired engineering career probably wasn't going to happen.
But whether it's Tog'ls or Legos, the overall idea is the same -- having more pieces gives you a chance to make more things, and make them more complex. Using that same thought process in basketball, having more players gives you more options. That's typically a positive thing -- you know, if they're actually good players -- but it potentially creates some issues. Like knowing which piece to put where and when.
This is not something Duke has had to worry very much about in its rise to elite women's hoops in the past several years. The Blue Devils, you'll recall, went to the Final Four in 2002 and last season's Elite Eight with squads of eight and nine players, respectively. But this season, the Blue Devils have a roster of 13, and it appears Duke -- which tops ESPN.com's preseason Top 25 rankings -- has the most high-quality depth that it has ever had.
"By far -- and that's going to be my greatest challenge as a coach this season," Duke's Gail Goestenkors said. "To find the right combinations, and to keep everybody involved and getting the right amount of minutes."
Now, of course, she's using "challenge" as a relative term. Hundreds of coaches would say, "Uh, yeah, could I please sign up for the 'challenge' of having all the players on Duke's team?"
Goestenkors knows that she has recruited Duke into a great situation. But the Blue Devils' program is also in the position of seeking that last, elusive pinnacle: a national championship.
Duke men's coach Mike Krzyzewski heard plenty of the "you can't win the big one" accusation when his program went to the Final Four four times in five years and didn't come away with a title. However, the next two years, 1991 and '92, his Duke team did win the NCAA championship.
Another coach in Goestenkors' neck of the woods -- Roy Williams at North Carolina -- heard the same thing for a long, long time at Kansas. But as of this past season, he has a national championship, too.
The need to "win it all" to shut everybody up is just part of the world we live in, and Goestenkors is aware of that. But she's also keen to the fact that every year, it gets harder and harder in women's hoops just to make the Final Four. There are a lot of very good teams that might not beat a "better" team in the course of a baseball-like series, but certainly can do it in the one-and-done situation of the NCAA Tournament.
All that said, she's very excited about the coming season. And so are her players.
"Definitely, this team has all the pieces," senior post player Mistie Williams said. "We have a lot of potential, starting with the base of inside play. And great driving guards, great shooting guards and having Lindsey back, it's a lot to work with."
That's Lindsey Harding, the point guard who was suspended for all of last season for unspecified violation of team rules. Without her, Duke had no true point guard, and freshman Wanisha Smith had to fill that role a lot. So did Monique Currie, the team's returning Kodak All-American, and Jessica Foley, who's back as a strong perimeter shooter.
Harding provides a lot, but two crucial things in particular: She's a one-woman press-breaker and she plays excellent on-the-ball defense.
"Last year, many times it felt like we had to work hard for every basket we got," said Goestenkors, and that certainly was reflected in Duke's season-ending 59-49 loss to LSU. "And we had a point [guard] by committee. Now, all three of those players are much better for that experience. With Lindsey leading the way, we can push the ball more.
"But I think we'll get to where whoever on the perimeter gets the ball, she can go with it. Emily Waner is a true point guard, so she feels very comfortable. Abby Waner is a scorer, but she can handle the ball. We're going from having nobody who was that comfortable playing the point to having several options. Even [6-foot-2 freshman guard/forward] Brittany Mitch is someone I'd be fine with bringing the ball down the court."
Emily Waner is a sophomore transfer from Colorado who's eligible after sitting out a year. Abby Waner, Emily's sister, is a freshman shooting machine, one of four rookies along with Mitch, forward Carrem Gay and guard/forward Keturah
Goestenkors said because of the lack of depth last year, the Blue Devils played more zone defense than she preferred. The additional bodies should mean Duke will be truly demonic on the defensive end this year. That will only help the offense.
Currie is a top-notch slasher who could have gone to the WNBA after last season, having sat out the 2002-2003 season with a knee injury. But she returned for a fifth year at school and fourth year on the college court to make her game even better.
She worked very hard on her 3-point shot during the summer.
"To be the player she wants to be, she has to become a very good 3-point shooter," Goestenkors said. "Because everybody knows she can go to the basket."
And everybody knows the kind of strength the Blue Devils have inside. Williams is the workhorse rebounder, leading the team last year at 8.4 per game, and the kind who always gets the big boards. She was also Duke's second-leading scorer last season at 12.6 points per game behind Currie's 17.2. Junior Alison Bales, at 6-7, became a scary force on defense as a sophomore, with 134 blocks to go along with averages of 8.2 points and 6.2 rebounds. And Chante Black had a very impressive rookie year, averaging 7.0 points and 7.9 rebounds.
"With those two, they should be confident that they can dominate games inside," Williams said of Bales and Black. "With me, I've worked a lot on my jump shot. I know I'll have to be able to hit that a lot more consistently."
So, yeah, that's an awful lot of names to run through in a Duke overview. As for the concept of keeping "all the pieces" happy, that was easy in Tog'ls. I never sensed any disgruntlement from the small, triangular Tog'ls that didn't get as much use. The windows had a great deal of down time as well. Every once in a while, I thought the smiling heads might get bored and be capable of some kind of insurgency, but I certainly never caught them in the act. The Tog'l set really seemed to be an oasis of plastic tranquility.
On a basketball team such as Duke's, maintaining that atmosphere is the responsibility of the players. If you're producing, the coach will find time for you. And when you've joined an upper-tier program, you have to come to it with the understanding that you might not get as much time as you might someplace else -- but the ultimate reward could be the biggest of all in basketball.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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