Commentary

Depleted Duke forges ahead

Star freshman Elizabeth Williams diagnosed with stress fracture Friday

Originally Published: March 17, 2012
By Graham Hays | espnW

Duke freshman Elizabeth Williams talks about the stress fracture in her right leg.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Start with the good news for Duke. Namely, no teams from Lehigh are anywhere to be found in the Music City.

Not that Duke's other No. 2 seed, the one coached by Joanne P. McCallie, needs any extra challenges in advance of Sunday's first-round game (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET) against Samford, a No. 15 seed with dreams of pulling exactly the kind of stunner the Lehigh men's team pulled against Mike Krzyzewski's squad Friday night.

When it comes to hurdles thrown in their way, the Blue Devils are in Edwin Moses territory. And it's time to find out whether they are too wounded to rise to the moment or too hardened to fall flat.

These Blue Devils are the ACC regular-season champions, a team that for much of the season looked like the most likely contender to keep one of the four favorites -- Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford -- out of the Final Four. The Blue Devils also are a team with just nine healthy players at the moment, only eight of them on scholarship and only seven in the regular rotation. And one of those players, Elizabeth Williams, who might just be the best of them all, was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her right leg that had her walking around in an air cast Saturday.

Walking around Memorial Gym, that is, where, should Duke get by Samford in the first round, it will face either No. 7 seed Vanderbilt on that team's near-impregnable home court or 10th-seeded Middle Tennessee, a proven spoiler that promises to bring its own improvised home-court advantage with legions of fans from around its campus in nearby Murfreesboro.

On the same day it left for Nashville, and what it hopes will be a run to Denver by way of Fresno, Duke sent out news releases detailing both Williams' injury and the impending ACL surgery for former starter Richa Jackson. That is Duke's season in a memo-sized nutshell -- plenty of reasons to celebrate and every reason to worry someone will sprain something in the process.

It's a mix of adversity and success unlike anything McCallie, in her 20th season as a head coach, has seen before.

"I don't think I would have stayed in coaching," McCallie joked about having faced similar challenges in the past, whether at Maine, Michigan State or Duke. "It's been a remarkable experience to see, yes, what we've done, what we've gone through and how we've persevered."

The real good news Saturday, other than the lack of any teams from the Patriot League, was that Williams said all the right things about the most recent injury to threaten the peace. While the stress fracture isn't going to get better until she shuts down for a couple of months, it will not keep her off the court against Samford. In fact, it didn't keep her off the court for practice Saturday, although she did sit out recent sessions back in Durham. The ACC rookie of the year also said, as might be expected, that the injury won't limit what she's able to do on the court.

Already a defensive presence unlike just about any this side of Brittney Griner and Duke's leading scorer by a healthy margin in ACC play, Williams is the piece the team cannot lose. This part of Tennessee was abuzz with Peyton Manning rumors Saturday, and the same logic applies to Williams as to Manning. Even some percentage of her peak is more valuable than any alternative.

"I just kind of have to watch her and see what I can do as a coach, relative to substitution," McCallie said. "I really respect Elizabeth so much; I think she can manage it, and I think she'll let me know if she can't. We don't talk about it a lot. It's not something she want to talk about, in particular -- that's a competitive kid."

But if Williams and point guard Chelsea Gray are the irreplaceable parts of Duke's success, its hopes of getting through Nashville unscathed and potentially challenging a team such as Stanford down the road depend on the ability to keep not just papering over absences but turning them into opportunities.

And there have been plenty of opportunities.

Amber Henson was the first to fall by the wayside. The talented freshman expected to provide frontcourt depth was instead forced to undergo season-ending surgery after eight games to repair lingering damage from high school injuries. The second wound was self-inflicted but damaging all the same. Chloe Wells, a starter in the first 10 games, was suspended for a violation of university policies, weakening the backcourt depth. And finally, starter Richa Jackson suffered a torn ACL deep into ACC play, taking away a player capable of filling multiple roles.

The result is a team that is trying to prove a strategic retreat can be the foundation of a championship. Despite the limited manpower and perhaps in large part because of Williams, Duke is actually ahead of its pace from last season in field goal defense. It just isn't doing it the same way.

"I've been a full-court pressing coach my whole career, so how much do you really think we can do that? Not very much," McCallie said. "So definitely, it limits you. It's an opportunity for that eight or nine, the eight scholarship kids plus the walk-on. But in the same sense, you're not as multiple-look defensively as you would be, and you're probably not as diverse as you would be offensively because you have limited players.

"The part that I worry about, more than anything else, is the lack of competition. Everyone knows they have to play. When you've got a team of 13 kids, everyone is sitting there fighting for playing time."

Coaches worry by nature, but it's hard to find evidence of players coasting on guaranteed court time. Tricia Liston, primarily a sharpshooter, took on more responsibilities handling the ball in support of Gray and Shay Selby. After playing limited minutes early, Allison Vernerey has been a reliable post presence on both ends for more than 20 minutes per game since Jackson's injury. Haley Peters played at least 30 minutes in six of the final 12 games, compared to four of the first 17 game, and emerged as a reliable 3-point shooter and a rebounding stalwart.

And a senior who appeared to be fading out of the spotlight at one point is now the best example of both Duke's perseverance to date and its precarious present. Suspended earlier this season for seven games for a violation of team rules, Selby played limited minutes upon her return in January. But with the exception of a rough shooting day in a loss at Maryland, she was a steady hand in the final eight games. During that stretch, Selby averaged 31.4 minutes, shot 45.6 percent and totaled 25 assists against 12 turnovers. She answered the call.

"Shay is somebody who is a senior and understands this time of year, probably more than our entire team, because she's been around the Joy Cheeks, the Jasmine Thomases," McCallie said. "She played minutes with those kids. I give her a great deal of credit because she's not 100 percent, she's got a knee problem, but she's managing that beautifully."

Of course she's battling a knee problem. Duke isn't the team it could have been or the team it thought it would be when the season began. A loss to NC State in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament raised questions as to whether all the personnel losses were finally catching up to the Blue Devils, questions the news about Williams only amplifies.

All that's certain is that seven players will largely determine the answer to that question. It's their opportunity.

"We're not trying to really think so much about subs and stuff like that," Selby said. "Just know that this is all we got, and we're going to give it our all."

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.