- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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Some days, Duke center Elizabeth Williams takes part in the entire practice, every drill. Other days, she shuttles onto and off the court -- relieving the pressure on her injured leg by occasionally hopping on the stationary bike. There are also afternoons when the 6-foot-3 sophomore doesn't even leave the training room, spending all of practice receiving treatment on the slow-healing stress fracture in her lower right leg.
In this way, Williams is the definition of "day-to-day," always letting pain guide her participation. And because of this, Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie is essentially coaching the Blue Devils, ranked No. 3 in the nation in espnW's preseason Top 25, as if Williams isn't even an option.
Because the reality is that McCallie doesn't know, from day to day, when or if her big-time center will be available to play. The pain might leave Williams' shin tomorrow -- or it might take months.
Williams' injury, diagnosed at the end of last season, hasn't healed as quickly as the Duke coaches and trainers had hoped. And now it's looking like Williams, whom many people consider the second-best center in the women's college game behind Baylor's Brittney Griner, might not return to full form until after Christmas.
No matter, says McCallie, who sees this gaping hole in her lineup as the perfect opportunity to test her other players. "I don't like when coaches complain about injuries," she told espnW. "My attitude is, people rise. Who is going to step up? Who is going to rise to the occasion? And if this works out well, maybe we'll be more prepared later in the season when Elizabeth comes back."
The good thing for McCallie is that Duke has no shortage of capable players. In fact, the Blue Devils have one of the top point guards in the country in Chelsea Gray, a 5-foot-11 junior who might be the best passer in the women's game. Gray, who averaged 12.5 points and 6.1 assists last season, is the most recognizable name among a group of juniors looking to bring the Blue Devils back to the Final Four for the first time since 2006. (Duke lost to Stanford in the Elite Eight last March.) Guard Tricia Liston, another junior, averaged 12 points per game last season, forward Haley Peters averaged 10.8, and guard Chloe Wells contributed 10.4 ppg.
"The main key without Elizabeth is rebounding," Gray said. "She was key for us last year. So now our core group that's here, and able to practice, have to get used to doing that. I think it's good for everyone to have this opportunity without Elizabeth."
But don't be fooled. Although Duke is busy game-planning for life without Williams, the Blue Devils still need her dominating inside presence to compete come March. What they're doing right now is a bit of a Band-Aid, collecting another rebound or two from each player to offset the total that Williams would grab. "They've definitely been focused on defense and rebounding," Williams said. "With less posts to rebound, it forces guards and other posts to rebound more. We know our offense isn't what we're too worried about."
Even McCallie can laugh about that, knowing she has a roster filled with players who can score. She also knows her team better than most coaches do at this early stage in the season because she took them to Italy and France for five exhibition games in August. "It's a very connected group," McCallie said. "They're bonded and mature -- more than most in November. That's been helpful. Especially with some of the adversity we faced."
The thing is, once Williams returns -- and she fully expects to do so within a month or two -- the Blue Devils will have the second-best inside-out combo in the country, behind only Baylor's one-two punch of Griner and point guard Odyssey Sims. With Gray and Williams running the floor and executing traditional pick-and-rolls in the half-court, Duke gains a dimension that allows some of the other skilled players, namely outside threat Liston, to fall back into more familiar roles. Having two star players, one running the show and the other patrolling inside, is not particularly common in women's basketball and leads to a level of on-court balance that allows everyone else on the floor to focus on what they do best. As McCallie put it, "The two-person game takes on a whole new dimension for us with Chelsea and Elizabeth running it."
Right now, the Blue Devils are busy figuring out a winning formula with Williams on the sideline. They're hopeful that once she returns, they will be stronger for having played without her.
Right now, Duke is busy figuring out a winning formula with Elizabeth Williams on the sideline. When she's on the court, the Blue Devils have the second-best inside-out combo in the country.