Superstars are gone, but Duke remains a contender
DURHAM, N.C. -- Monique Currie and Mistie Williams are gone and bitter memories of a second half in Boston remain, but they're still playing basketball at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season.
Just like every other year.
The University of Tennessee didn't stop playing football just because Peyton Manning, arguably the best player in the school's history, didn't win a championship in four years in Knoxville. Instead, Tee Martin and the Volunteers marched all the way to a title in 1998 while Manning toiled through his rookie season in the NFL.
Stars might define an era for fans in any sport, but the reality for powerhouse programs isn't nearly so black and white.
"If you're running a great program, there's a fluidity," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said before a recent game against Old Dominion, outlining the overlapping tenures of players such as Alana Beard, Currie, Williams, Lindsey Harding, Alison Bales and now Abby Waner and Carrem Gay. "So I think we're fortunate in that this program has not been based on a particular player or class. I guess that's when you feel successful."
Goestenkors was speaking in general terms, but after watching the Blue Devils dismantle a Lady Monarchs team that might have difficulty keeping alive its streak of postseason appearances, it was difficult not to contrast the two programs. Once one of the college game's royal families, the Lady Monarchs have fallen on hard times (or at least harder times) since stars such as Ticha Penicheiro departed, ending a line that included the likes of Nancy Lieberman and Anne Donovan.
Despite the departures and disappointments, no such tumble awaits the Blue Devils in the near future. From a pair of seniors with plenty of big-game experience to a cast of young players eager to make their mark, this year's team is attempting to prove that Duke is always a championship contender.
Duke's hopes this season begin with seniors Harding and Bales. The point guard and center, respectively, give the Blue Devils on-court experience at arguably the two most important positions. Both have been big contributors throughout their four seasons (Harding actually arrived with Williams before redshirting the 2004-05 season), but the roles they now occupy on and off the court are new.
"I knew they would be good leaders, and I knew they understood what it takes to be successful at the elite level," Goestenkors said. "But I'm still learning about them feeling comfortable in their new roles, not just as leaders, but as go-to players. They've had great experiences, but they were also complementary players; this year they are our go-to players."
Long an imposing but relatively silent presence in the middle, Bales is guiding her teammates the same way she guides opponents' shots into the stands.
"I think both of them have kind of had to mold and change into these leadership roles," Waner said. "And Ali, especially, has been so much more vocal this year. She knew that she wasn't one of the most vocal players, and she changed. I hear her all the time, and she's constantly talking."
|“||This is a fun team to coach, because last year we returned all five starters, so before the season started, we knew basically who we were. This year, I'm just really excited to find out who we're going to become, because there are so many great possibilities for us. ”|
|— Duke coach Gail Goestenkors|
Harding, one of the quickest players in the nation, is getting help adjusting to the challenge of balancing her duties as point guard with an increased scoring presence.
"One of our focuses is that whichever one of the guards gets it, just go," Waner said. "A staple of Duke basketball is running the floor, and in order to do that, Lindsey can't come back to the ball every time if she's not the closest guard. So it's definitely a focus to have me and Nish [Wanisha Smith] handle the ball a lot more, so Lindsey's not having to bring the ball up the entire time. And then that way, Lindsey can also penetrate a lot more, which is what she does best."
Beyond leadership and chemistry, the technical mechanics of keeping things rolling at Duke come down to two things: defense and offensive efficiency.
A season ago, the Blue Devils limited opponents to 35 percent shooting and forced 141 more turnovers than they committed. By way of comparison, the Maryland Terrapins, a terrific defensive team in their own right, limited opponents to 38 percent shooting on the way to a title, and committed more turnovers than their opponents.
"The defense has always been the priority for me," Goestenkors said. "If you play good defense, your offense is going to come. Because it's going to result in a lot of fast-break opportunities because you're going to get rebounds and you're going to make people take poor shots. When they do that, you can get your offense going; we love to transition."
Compare Williams to North Carolina's Erlana Larkins or Duke's Jessica Foley to Maryland's Laura Harper, and the Blue Devils didn't necessarily have the athletic talent or across-the-board size of their ACC rivals. But team defense carried Duke a long way. This year that defense will get a boost from a bevy of long, athletic, versatile talents in freshmen Bridgette Mitchell, Joy Cheek and Keturah Jackson, as well as Gay and redshirt freshman Brittany Mitch, who'll have expanded roles.
"I feel like that there are more plays where I just kind of sit back and say, 'Wow, I can't believe that just happened.' You know, Bridgette, some of the finishes that she has are unbelievable, that she's 6-1 and she's finishing inside with all those post players," Waner said.
Gay, in particular, has been a revelation in the early going. Despite missing most of the summer following offseason shoulder surgery, the sophomore from New York has done far more than fill in after Chante Black suffered a right knee injury in October.
"The person that I think I'm most impressed with right now is Carrem," Waner said. "I think Careem is playing the best that's she played since she's been here. And she's had it in her the whole time, but it's just taken a little while for her to show it.
"I think if she can keep playing like that and getting better, she's going to be one of the best post players in the nation by the time that she's done."
After averaging just eight minutes per game last season while nursing the injured shoulder, Gay opened this season with 16 points and six rebounds against Northeastern.
"The first two games were an adjustment for me, because I'm used to coming off the bench," Gay said. "Being able to come out from the tip and playing aggressive, playing hard, that was a challenge at first. But I have people like my parents, my coaches from previous years, just telling me to just be confident in myself."
Gay tweaked her surgically repaired shoulder in the game against Old Dominion, suffering what she termed a "spasm" after a collision in the second half, but she returned to the game with a sleeve on the shoulder after briefly leaving the court.
So far, Gay and the other newcomers don't seem to be having much difficulty adapting to Goestenkors' defensive approach. Through six games, the Blue Devils have yet to allow an opponent to shoot better than 30 percent from the field.
"I always liked defense," Gay said. "That was one thing I could always count on. Like if my shot wasn't falling, I could get a steal the next play. Things like that."
Of course, it never hurts to have Bales backing you up in the post.
"She's averaging about six blocks a game," Goestenkors said. "And for those six blocks, she's changing six more shots and then there are six other times that somebody doesn't even drive the lane because they know she is waiting. So there's 18 shots that have been changed or didn't even occur because of her presence in there."
On the other end of the court, patience is the key to Duke's offense. In addition to field-goal defense last season, the Blue Devils also led the nation in field-goal shooting, hitting 49.8 percent of their shots. But it was an accompanying stat that most impressed their coach.
"The other thing that I'm most proud of is our assists, and that's sharing the ball," Goestenkors said. "We led the nation in field-goal percentage last year, but I'm most proud we led the nation in assists. My philosophy is if you're willing to share the ball and make that extra pass, you're going to get a great shot versus a good shot, and therefore your assists go up and your field-goal percentage goes up."
But are the Blue Devils too unselfish for their own good? Beard and Currie reached a total of three Final Fours with the Blue Devils, including two as teammates. But aside from Beard's memorable 29-point effort in a semifinal loss to Tennessee in 2003, neither player truly put her own stamp on a game during the season's final weekend.
It seems possible that part of Duke's trouble in claiming the long-awaited first championship is too much emphasis on moving the ball in search of the perfect shot at a time of year when even good shots become tough to find. After sharing the scoring role for most of the season, Duke's star player -- whether it was Beard, Currie or Waner -- was then ill-equipped to carry the load for even short periods of time in the postseason.
Goestenkors wasn't buying the notion that any players -- even her players -- are truly too unselfish for their own good.
"I've never run into that," the coach said with a laugh. "If we ever get there, I think it will be easy to adjust. We've always had players that are willing to take the shot, and fortunately, had players that have been willing to make the extra pass to get a great shot."
Sure to be in the same position as Currie and Beard at some point during her career, possibly as early as the present, Waner agreed.
"I think that it comes down to just having confidence in your team," Waner said. "That we all know if we move the ball enough, that we have enough threats that they can't just focus in on one player, so eventually someone is going to be open, whether it's me, Ali, Nish, Lindsey or Carrem.
"So I never really look at it that way, that I'm worried that it's going to throw off my shooting or I'm not going to get my shots in."
Maybe they're right, and maybe Waner, who plays with more surface emotion than the stoic Beard or smoldering Currie, is the right person to play within the confines of the offense right up until the point when she needs to produce a big shot. Only time will tell.
Heading into a week that included games against No. 17 Rutgers, No. 14 Vanderbilt and No. 25 Texas, the Blue Devils prepared to measure themselves against their stiffest competition thus far.
"Considering the injuries, and Chante being out, I think we're really in a good spot, we're where we need to be," Goestenkors said. "I know we have a long way to go; I know we're nowhere near what we're capable of. I think that's exciting. We're going to take some hits. We're by no means at the top of our game, and I understand that, and that's OK.
"This is a fun team to coach, because last year we returned all five starters, so before the season started, we knew basically who we were. This year, I'm just really excited to find out who we're going to become, because there are so many great possibilities for us."
Because when you're a program like Duke, the possibilities are almost always positive.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.