The 2015-2016 season began well enough for the Duke Blue Devils, as they started off 10-1 and went from an AP ranking of 14 to 12.
Then, just that quickly, things took a down turn.
Their second game of December they lost to South Carolina, and then two weeks later they were beaten by Kentucky. The Blue Devils began the new year with an 86-50 drubbing at the hands of Syracuse, which dropped them to No. 18. A loss to Louisville a week later saw them fall to No. 22.
But it was a three-point home loss to NC State four nights later that proved to be the knockout punch. The following Monday, Duke was absent from the weekly AP top 25 rankings for the first time since November, 1999, which had been the third-longest streak in the history of the poll, behind Tennessee and Connecticut.
They lost five more games, finished 8-8 in the ACC and fell to Notre Dame in the conference tournament semifinals. When Selection Monday came, the Blue Devils were not chosen for the NCAA Tournament. They opted not to play in the WNIT. Instead, they started right in on redemption, and preparing for this season.
“After the selection show we had five days off and we were right back at it,” junior transfer guard Lexie Brown said. “We got a new strength coach, we worked out with the men’s lacrosse team, we were on the track a lot – it was hard. But it’s really starting to pay off now.”
Duke, currently at 7-1, does seem to look more like their former selves of late. Each of their wins so far this season have been routs that have showcased strong performances – usually by top scorers Rebecca Greenwell and Brown. Greenwell notched 1,000 career points earlier this month and made a school record eight three-point shots in Sunday’s game against Pepperdine. Brown has eclipsed her career-high mark twice.
Yet, with a tough schedule ahead of them next month that includes rematches with the Gamecocks, Wildcats and Cardinals, the Blue Devils are traveling the road back to the rankings one game at a time.
The new Duke Blue Devils
Though Duke has been unranked for almost one year, a buzz still follows them as they tour the country. Such is the legacy of a program that grew to a national power under 15-year coach Gail Goestenkors, and continued dominating under Joanne P. McCallie, who has headed the team since 2007 after she turned Michigan State into an elite squad.
Goestenkors took the Blue Devils to seven Elite 8’s, four Final Fours and two appearances in the National Championship game. McCallie guided them to four straight ACC regular-season championships and subsequent Elite 8’s from 2010-2013.
But Duke’s following continues largely because of their charismatic stars, Greenwell and Brown.
Greenwell is a junior guard from Kentucky who has worked her way back from two ACL tears with a lot of determination and persistence. She averages 22 points and 6.8 rebounds per game so far this season. Brown, also a junior guard, transferred from Maryland in 2015 and has seamlessly assimilated with the Blue Devils. She averages 18.4 points and 4.3 assists per game.
Soft-spoken Greenwell said she has evolved both on and off-court during her college career.
“I’ve grown a lot since I arrived at Duke. My freshman year I was kind of timid and I fell into the role of a three-point shooter, which wasn’t something I wanted to do,” she said. “My confidence has improved throughout the years, and I’ve put more emphasis on the defensive end. So I think I’m a better defensive player and I like to get to the rim instead of just shoot the ball.”
McCallie appreciates everything she’s seen from Greenwell.
“Rebecca’s been amazing,” McCallie said. “She’s a great shooter and is fond of developing all parts of her game: her mid-range game, her defense, everything. She’s an incredible competitor, and I don’t know anyone who works harder.”
“It’s fun to see her get better every day, and she has high aspirations. She’s already been admitted to our business school for next year; she does it academically as well as athletically.”
Brown went with the Terrapins to the Final Four in her freshman year and transferred after the following season for academic reasons. McCallie said her case is unusual.
“A lot of times kids leave a program to get more playing time, or because they don’t like the coach. That wasn’t the case at all for Lexie,” McCallie said. “Lexie wanted more academics…..so that was a very different transfer. She feels really comfortable in the Duke atmosphere. She also wanted to stay in the traditional ACC.”
Brown has been a great match for a team who lost top scorer Azura Stevens and a reserve player last year.
“She’s wonderful, a great guard and has a great skill set offensively and defensively,” McCallie said of Brown. “She fit right in and made an impact immediately.”
Greenwell, who was the Blue Devils’ second-leading scorer last season, appreciates the leadership assist, too.
“Lexie’s transition has been extremely smooth and she fits in really well,” Greenwell said. “She’s a big, big part of our team and a great leader as well.”
During games, McCallie often talks to players on the bench about what is going on as it happens, much like it would be if the team were watching film together. Brown says her coach does it, in part, to keep everyone engaged.
“She always says, I don’t care about starters, I care about finishers. So you’ve got to be locked in,” Brown said. “We’ve asked about starters and she always says, ‘it doesn’t matter who starts; if someone’s rolling, I’m going to keep them in.'”
McCallie has a laundry list of things she said her team needs to work on, and limited time in which to do it.
“We’re working on rebounding and defense, trying to get our guards more active in rebounding, because they can do it, and trying to get out posts more consistent,” she said. “Offensively demanding the ball, more use of the block.”
“This time of year we haven’t had a lot of practices – we’ve been playing game after game after game. And we’ll get a break in December, but right now we’re trying to learn by watching film.”
Lessons learned, and looking ahead
McCallie said she has learned in her 25 years of coaching that there are ebbs and flows, and that issues come up that are beyond control. Last year injuries played a significant role in Duke’s late-season losses, which was a lesson to everyone.
“We learned a lot about not taking things for granted, and that brought about the entitlement piece for us,” she said. “When you do so well for so long, that can happen.”
It has been a different ride than when she was the Spartans’ coach.
“For me coming to Duke was the ultimate challenge because I built Michigan State from the bottom up, and of course that wasn’t the case at Duke. Gail had done such an extraordinary job at Duke, and coming into that, that was the ultimate challenge. We had some great success going to four straight elite eights, and last year’ troubles brought it back for us to realizing what’s important.”
Greenwell said she and the rest of the team took the lessons of last season in stride.
“Last year was a good growing experience, although it was definitely frustrating,” she said. “Things came at us that we couldn’t control, but I just tried to deal with it the best that I could and tried to stay positive. Obviously the season didn’t go the way we expected or planned, but I think we grew and learned and it’s carrying over to this season. We’re just trying to avoid the mistakes we made last year and move forward this year.”
The outcome of months of hard work has been great improvement, according to players.
“We had a really hard summer to get a lot of our stuff together,” Brown said. “We’re a different-looking team than we’ve been in recent years in that we’re not as post-oriented. We have new attitudes from last season: we want to run fast, we want to make everyone tired, we want to run in transition.”
“This year everyone’s back and they’re super-healthy, probably in the best shape they’ve ever been in.We just have a lot of fun out there.”
Greenwell said the Blue Devils are working better together.
“Our team chemistry is really good, both on and off the court,” she said. “I think we play off each other a lot better this year. Skill-wise, we’re a much faster team. We like to get the ball on the run. Our team chemistry carries over into every facet of the game.”
McCallie said the road to the Final Four is more open this year than it has been for a long while. But Duke is taking this year one day and one game at a time.
“I’m like any other coach: trying to get it done, trying to know the team that we have, trying to get the most that we can out of them, and stay in the moment as much as possible,” McCallie said.
The Blue Devils take on Rutgers Thursday before returning home to host No. 3 South Carolina on Monday.