DURHAM, N.C. – The Duke Blue Devils are different this season.
Currently holding an overall record of 14-6 and a 3-3 ledger in Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) play, Duke is not being viewed the same as it has been in recent years.
Head coach Joanne P. McCallie has the makeup of a team that she hasn’t had in a long time during her nine years leading the Blue Devils program.
The players are young, possess raw talent, but need much more direction from McCallie and her staff that previous teams haven’t necessarily required in the same way.
That’s because previous teams, nationally ranked and NCAA-championship tournament contenders, had upperclassmen with experience that carried the load while younger players were able to ease into and contribute to the team’s success at the speed they needed to.
That’s not the case right now.
This year’s team is currently unranked, a situation that arose recently as the Blue Devils started their league schedule by dropping three of their first four games.
Dropping out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since Nov. 29, 2000, following 312 straight weeks in the poll, the third-longest streak in NCAA history, Duke must now focus on patching up its foundation to ensure more of it doesn’t fall apart.
Duke hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent yet.
Add in additional losses to unranked opponents, including a heartbreaker to N.C. State that snapped a 152-game winning streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and many would think that it’s panic time for McCallie.
She has done things differently.
Duke has started all 13 of its players at some point this season, which is a program record and eclipsed the previous mark of 11 from the 2010-11 campaign.
The Blue Devils have also presented 12 different starting lineups in 2015-16.
All in all, the coach has been accepting of her team’s ebb and flow with success.
“I’ve been enjoying this team getting better,” McCallie said during a conference call on Friday.
“But there’s this sort of thing that seems like people think that we’re entitled to win when we’ve been playing Kentucky, South Carolina, Louisville – pretty good teams that are junior, senior-laden guard teams. Our attitude is we’re trying to get better. It’s very competitive. The mid-range teams are better and certainly we’re the youngest we’ve been in some time. So, it’s sort of a neat thing to watch how we grow. There’s some sort of assumption that we’re supposed to be X, Y, or Z, and we are not entitled to do that. We have to earn that.”
Heading into Sunday’s matchup with rival North Carolina (12-9, 2-4), another perennial Top 25 team that is also on the outside looking in while dealing with serious roster number issues, the Blue Devils are trying to right their path following two recent wins over Boston College and Clemson.
“I think we’re getting better,” McCallie said.
“We’re making progress, most certainly, but there’s been nothing about our schedule that’s been easy. We probably have too hard of a schedule considering the youth of our team. We’ve had to grow up quickly and I think we’re doing that.”
Sophomore Azurá Stevens leads the team at both ends of the court, and is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds in ACC games, which ranks third and first, respectively.
Redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell is averaging 14 points per game and six rebounds, and ranks second in the league with 16 made three-pointers in ACC action.
Freshman guards Kyra Lambert and Angela Salvadores have started to settle into playing against ACC competition, earning new career marks on a regular basis, but still experiencing growing pains.
“I really like this team very much. I think they’re learning how to play better together, so it’s just taking steps like we want to and play a little bit better on Sunday,” McCallie continued.
While Duke has averaged 71 points per game and holds a 46-percent shooting percentage, committing an average of 19 turnovers per contest has put the Blue Devils on the losing side of the score sheet more so than in recent years.
“Our post players have had their fair share,” McCallie said.
“All of our freshmen, during a game, unfortunately have turned it over. There’s no substitute for experience. When we had freshmen before, we had juniors and seniors that were dominant. This year we don’t have dominant juniors and seniors, so the freshmen and sophomores have to learn as they go, and that’s a big challenge for them.”
In realizing that her team has a different skill set which is developing its tactical execution at a different pace, McCallie has also stepped back to determine how to best infuse the motivation and direction needed.
“You’re always adjusting as a coach,” McCallie said.
“And I think that with a younger team it’s important to be demanding to expose them to a championship level and what that’s like, but at the same time you have to step off that plateau. So, once in a while you kind of reach down. I’m afraid sometimes a softer approach works in that regard to young players. It’s kind of a combination, kind of going at the pace of the team demands. At times I can coach individual players at a championship level, but I’m not totally coaching the team at the championship level yet. It’s been a positive (development) without question.”
Duke and North Carolina will meet for the 92nd time with the Tar Heels holding a 49-42 edge in the teams’ all-time series.
In recent years, the Blue Devils have won three in a row and 10 out of the last 12, including six out of the last seven in Cameron.
Regardless of the numbers, particularly this season, Duke can’t take any opponent for granted.
Past victories were earned by past teams.
“They’re very talented,” McCallie said of the Tar Heels.
“They’re definitely short in numbers, but they’ve got five terrific go-to players, and we have a lot of work to do.”
This year’s Duke team is different and should be viewed as a work in progress – not even close to a finished product.
The Blue Devils can eventually earn results similar to previous years, but only after experiencing a fair share of adversity, and learning what their limits are.
“The focus is squarely on us and what we want to accomplish,” McCallie said.
“Whether it’s rebounding, whether it’s how we get the ball inside, whether it’s how we get 25 assists or so. We focus on us. I realize it’s a rival game, and you have to be excited. From our perspective, we just have to play our way and put our best product forward. The team understands very clearly that every game is evaluated, every minute. That’s the neat thing about the NCAA and what you’re building towards in March or April – is that everything counts.”