Duke makes its third trip to the Cancun Challenge in 2015; the Blue Devils also made the trip in 2006 and 2009. The team will play Idaho, Iowa State and Texas State in this year’s event, set for Nov. 26-28.
Heading into her ninth season running the women’s basketball show at Duke, Joanne P. McCallie is not the type to be easily startled or mystified by what happens on the court.
But the Blue Devils were put in some rather curious situations last season, where even someone with microscopic insight on her team could only look at the young women running the floor and feel a bit anxious. All those agreed-upon plans had to give way to game-to-game improvisations because of injuries and a lingering vacancy at point guard.
Duke still played its way to a Sweet Sixteen berth in the NCAA Tournament; the Blue Devils were tough, uninterested in sympathy, and next to impossible to beat at home. In the end, the team went no further in the tourney, and the final numbers showed some clear worry spots. In many ways, it was a Duke-ish type of year, more than a purely Duke experience.
“The staff did a great job; we were a coach down because of health issues, so we had (disruptions) on the team and the coaching staff,” McCallie said. “As a coach, the season made me better at my job; we had to be very creative. Seasons like that can be painful, even though we were 17-1 at home against some really good teams, but in the end I was inspired by what we went through. I can’t believe some of the things we were able to pull off.
“There were tears and frustration, because you are wanting things to be different and be better. It could have turned into victimology, and you always have to watch for that. The team was more vulnerable than usual. But that’s going to be one of my most memorable years of coaching.”
McCallie couldn’t help but remember some of the team’s unusual weaknesses. Most years, the turnover-to-assist ratio was about break-even, but this time around it was a downright downer (Duke coughed up the ball more than 18 times a game); the historically wicked-good 3-point shooting turned scary (just .324 overall); and a program that took pleasure in difficult road games was just 5-8 away from Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“The turnovers were ungodly and uncharacteristic. Three-point shooting, we led the country twice and certainly weren’t at that level last year,” said McCallie, who had a hard time digesting some of the poor defensive numbers the roster posted in ACC play. “Some of those (negatives) we just had to accept, those things out of our control. We had to rebound, be very blue-collar – we struggled on the road because we had no seasoned point guard, and we didn’t even have a pure point guard by position. It was a humbling experience. Anything that had to do with creativity and ball handling, like the assist-to-turnover ratio, was a problem.”
While all that struggling played out, the Blue Devils were also making hard-earned progress in areas that should make a difference this season. Another top-ranked recruiting class will provide help at point guard, but redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell looks more comfortable there after being forced into the job a year ago.
In her first full year in 2014-15, Greenwell had a breathtakingly busy run, missing by a single minute the all-time Duke record for minutes played in a season. A terrific shooter with quick hands on defense, Greenwell was an anchor when the season threatened to get away from the squad, averaging 14.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while leading the team in steals.
“There was definitely a lot on my plate coming in. It was a good learning experience; technically I was a freshman but it didn’t feel like it,” Greenwell said. “I had about a year of practice time (while redshirting) so I had some experience before getting thrown into it. I grew a lot over the course of the season. One thing Coach strives for is to have us be able to play multiple positions, and not just limit yourself to what you did before. You never know when you will be called on to do something out of your comfort zone.”
When the rotation was sometimes whittled to just eight players in uniform thanks to injuries, Greenwell used her hard-earned savvy to do damage inside and outside. It’s hard to overstate the stability she provided in a time when it was needed desperately.
“Playing point guard was (a big challenge). I think of myself as a ball-handler, but not a true point guard, and we didn’t have one," she said. "Coach would call on me to start the offense from the top, and I had to get used to smaller, quicker guards covering me. That could be tough at times.
“Last year was a different type of season, and the lack of guards was a big part. People were playing in unnatural positions – we’d have posts bringing the ball up the floor, that sort of thing. But we still got to the Sweet 16 as a young team. You’ll see a different team, more like the Duke you know, because we have a lot of athleticism and quickness, maybe not as much size.”
“(Rebecca) was incredible, an All-American in every respect. We just kept asking, and she just kept giving,” McCallie said. “She played the 1, the 2, the 3 – so versatile, and she grew in so many ways. She’s a huge competitor who absolutely hates losing, and I’m very excited for her going forward.”
Most preseason rankings will have the Blue Devils near the top 10, in all due respect to McCallie’s resume (541-201 in 23 years total, a .729 winning percentage), the depth of her recent recruiting classes, Greenwell’s presence and the return of junior forward Oderah Chidom, a 6-foot-4 thumper down low who missed 13 games after dislocating a shoulder. But the most impressive weapon Duke employs is arguably 6-5 sophomore swing player Azura Stevens.
Stevens, a second-team preseason All-American in Sporting News, spent much of the off-season doing two productive activities – hitting the weights, and playing on the USA Basketball U19 World Championships team that traveled to Russia. She started all eight games for Team USA, which ran the table and won the gold medal.
“Russia was awesome, a blessing in general to go play overseas and get a taste of that,” Stevens said. “One thing I worked on was playing down low more, being physical, working on my game near the basket. I’ve worked hard to get stronger; I’m just naturally thinner than most 5’s or 4’s, but right now, I’m just embracing the contact.”
Stevens also played a ton of minutes as a freshman and soaked up information on how she could broaden her skills and be more useful to a roster that was scrambling for answers. She averaged more than 14 points and eight rebounds per game and shot .512 from the field.
“I think it was a good year, but at the end of the day we didn’t win the championship, and that’s always my primary goal,” she said. “There were frustrations, and we were in a tough spot being pulled in different directions (in the lineup). But one of the benefits of last year was we gave it our all, even playing out of position. We can use what we learned.
“I like both (playing post and wing); it depends on who is defending me, and it’s all about the matchups. If I’ve got a smaller defender on me, I’m trying to get down lower and use my height, and if I’m guarded by a bigger girl, I will bring her out and make a move to go around her.”
Greenwell has also taken her downtime to think hard about how to best use the lessons learned from a demanding season. She was set to play for an international team as well last summer, but caught some bad luck with an illness and an ensuing case of pneumonia – she’s feeling just fine now.
“I’ve been learning how to deal with what the defense gives you. Learning how to run off screens properly, the ways to get open, I didn’t realize the details that can make all the difference,” Greenwell added. “You change a few things, and it goes a long way to making you better. Another thing Coach has talked to me about is slowing the game down. You can’t always go 100 percent every second – it doesn’t make the defense think as much as they should have to.”
Greenwell, Stevens and the Blue Devils really didn’t have the luxury to think last season, dealing with dramatic changes from week-to-week and resembling a work in progress. But armed with new, unique skills, Duke should have the brains, speed and brawn to look more like itself again.