Despite the all of its youth this season, Duke will be in anything but a rebuilding phase.
The two-time defending ACC champions, who finished 32-4 and in the NCAA Elite Eight last season, are picked to finish second in the conference behind resurgent Miami this time and in everyone’s national Top 10.
And there are heavy expectations falling onto a group that has two seniors, a junior, five sophomores and four freshmen. What helps, of course, is that the sophomores’ recruiting class was the consensus No. 1 in the nation while the freshmen were No. 1 by some estimations.
“Every team is different,” Coach Joanne P. McCallie said Tuesday during the Blue Devils’ annual media/photo day. “We’re just evolving and getting to know each other. We’re working hard. We have to learn to play great defense, we have to learn to rebound, we have to learn to get to the free-throw line and a lot of things. The sophomores have earned some great playing time based on what they did last year and of course they’ll play a lot this year. This is an exciting time for me because I haven’t had a team this young. They’ll teach me some things and hopefully we’ll teach them some things.”
The Blue Devils will have to make up for the loss of a solid three-player senior class – guard Jasmine Thomas, wing Karima Christmas and center Krystal Thomas, all of whom have played in the WNBA – but all the returning players got significant playing time last season.
Winger Kathleen Scheer and guard Shay Selby are the seniors, while 6-5 center Allison Vernerey is the only sophomore.
“We remember the way Abby (Waner) and Jas (Thomas) and Joy (first-year assistant coach Cheek) led us, and we want to come in and be as successful as they were to us,” Scheer said.
Selby had similar sentiments.
“I just want to lead in any way possible whether it’s on the court through my actions or off the court encouraging my teammates,” she said. At this point I really just want to do all I can for this team to win. This is our last go-around, so I kind of want to go out with a bang.”
The sophomore class of forwards Haley Peters and Richa Jackson and guards Chloe Wells, Chelsea Gray and Tricia Liston was thrown right into the mix last season, although Gray and Jackson were both slowed at times by injuries.
The freshmen are 6-3 center Elizabeth Williams, 6-4 forward Amber Henson – whose brother John plays at UNC – 5-10 guard Ka’lia Johnson and 5-6 walk-on guard Jenna Frush out of Northern High. Williams is by many estimates the nation’s top incoming freshman.
“Our chemistry has really been great,” Peters said. “We had a great summer and all our practices have been intense. The freshmen especially understand the energy it takes to play at this level. They give all the upperclassmen energy and that’s been big.”
The Blue Devils will host exhibition games against Pfeiffer on Nov. 3 and Lander on Nov. 6, opening at Brigham Young on Nov. 11 before playing their home opener against Auburn on Nov. 18 at noon.