- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Entering her fourth season as Duke's coach, Joanne P. McCallie for the first time has a roster comprised almost entirely of players she recruited. Yet amid the talent carefully assembled to fit her particular philosophy of basketball, it's the one who got away who will play the biggest part in attempting to guide the Blue Devils back to the Final Four for the first time since 2006.
From the beginning, McCallie knew Jasmine Thomas was the kind of player you could build a program around. In the lithe high schooler from Fairfax, Va., McCallie saw the kind of intense competitor who could not just guide a backcourt but steer a team, just as point guard Kristin Haynie had for McCallie's Michigan State Spartans during their run to the national championship game in 2005.
Of course, McCallie wasn't alone. Named a prep All-American by seemingly every publication this side of Car and Driver, Thomas was one of the biggest prizes in the graduating class of 2007, a standout student who would go on to lead the United States Under-19 team to a world championship before she set foot on a college campus. She had her pick of colleges, and her preference was to stay considerably closer to home than the roughly 600 miles between Fairfax and East Lansing, Mich., despite McCallie's best efforts to the contrary.
Nevertheless, in a phone conversation that stretched on for something close to 45 minutes, the first such conversation Thomas said she had with a college coach during the recruiting process, the player found a dialogue almost as intriguing to her as the distance proved discouraging. Thomas eventually signed with Duke, but she came away understanding McCallie.
So it was that five months later, after Gail Goestenkors left Duke for Texas, one person who knew the new coach as well as anyone in the program was the incoming freshman.
"I think it's funny that the conversation went so well, and it was so comfortable and just a natural conversation," Thomas said. "I feel like that's the same way we talk now. It's almost like, from the first time that I talked to her, I felt comfortable around her. I felt like I had a connection with her. I think, now, you see that. From the start, we've always had a good relationship."
For Thomas, the transition to Duke was relatively seamless. She enjoyed a productive freshman season in which she started 20 times, including all six of Duke's games in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, averaged double figures as a full-time starter as a sophomore and emerged as an All-American-caliber player last season as a junior.
The road was a bit bumpier for the coach.
Thomas wasn't necessarily expected to step in and be Lindsey Harding from the first tick of the clock in her first college game against Denver; McCallie's grace period was noticeably shorter in replacing Goestenkors. After consecutive losses against Connecticut, Vanderbilt and Penn State early in the 2007-08 season, Duke dropped to No. 17 in the AP Top 25, hardly catastrophic but nonetheless the program's lowest ranking since early in the 1999-2000 season. The Blue Devils recovered to make the Sweet 16, but there were rumblings of discontent out of Durham.
The nadir seemed to come the next season in a loss against McCallie's old team on her old court at Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Greeted with boos in East Lansing, where resentment lingered over the extension she signed shortly before taking the unexpected opening at Duke, she seemed little more entrenched in Durham, where the run of Sweet 16 appearances came to an abrupt end after a decade. But as Thomas tells it, the ending of that second season notwithstanding, seeds had already taken root for the Blue Devils.
"When I came in my freshman year, I had seniors on the team who had just played their first three years under one coach, so there obviously is an adjusting period in trying to get players to buy in," Thomas said. "But you can't always make everyone happy. There was a rough adjustment period, and I think we handled it well. I think we still fought through it and worked together as a team and with Coach P to make it a better transition.
"I think by my sophomore year, I felt things were getting better and everyone was beginning to understand Coach P. It's not so much buying in, it's just understanding what she wants from her players."
More often than not, what she wants is more defense. For Duke fans primarily interested in seeing their team on the right side of the final score, last season's Blue Devils were first-class entertainment. For almost everyone else, they were a Russian novel or a Wylie Dufresne meal -- appreciated as the product of master artisans but a challenge to enjoy. They didn't score as much or shoot as well as some of the teams that came before them, but they turned people over, made them miss shots and controlled the glass en route to ranking in the top 20 nationally in field goal defense, scoring defense, turnover margin and rebound margin.
"All you can do is be yourself," McCallie said. "You're not trying to be some sort of major agent of change; you're trying to be consistent with yourself philosophically. I have always been the kind of coach that I am at Duke. I've always been that way, in terms of I love rebounding, I love defense, I think those are viable, important things. I love physical, aggressive play; I've always coached it. So you just kind of continue that.
"At Duke, we're blessed with more talented student-athletes and people of that nature, so we have more we can do. It's more of a basketball laboratory, and it's more of a place that I can do things with multiple defenses. Our defensive schemes are much more sophisticated at Duke than at any place I've coached, and that's because of the athletes' ability, intelligence and acumen to understand what we're trying to do."
The system almost took the Blue Devils to the Final Four last season. Leading Baylor by eight points with five minutes to play in a regional final, and five points with less than three minutes to play, they lost Krystal Thomas to fouls and had little left to counter Brittney Griner in the paint. Baylor got the last five rebounds, Griner put the Lady Bears ahead to stay and Duke went home disappointed. That loss lingered, to be sure, but after spending part of the summer as an intern with the WNBA's Washington Mystics, Thomas cut short her time away and returned to campus, too excited about a highly touted freshman class and a host of returning talent to stay away.
The Blue Devils are loaded with talent, big inside and deep on the wings. But they need Thomas, who led the team at 16 points per game last season and hit more 3-pointers than any three other players combined, to take the lead, whether she's playing point or off the ball alongside someone like prized freshman recruit Chelsea Gray.
"She just keeps elevating her game," McCallie said of Thomas. "There are many pieces to last year's team and there are many pieces to this year's team, and everybody's got to do their part. But [Thomas] is certainly an engine. She keeps going and she plays so hard. She'll do whatever is asked of her. Her defensive skills have really improved, so both sides of the ball are looking as good as they've ever looked. But she's definitely an engine behind us, in terms of her energy and the way she competes out on the floor."
And whatever unfolds, good or bad, it will be McCallie's team playing her way. And it will be led by the most important recruit she never signed.
"I'm happy to say the program is 100 percent hers now," Thomas said.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
19dBonnie D. Ford