Cal's schedule took a big step upward in difficulty when Georgetown visited Berkeley, but it will take a seismic leap on Sunday against the 4th ranked Duke Blue Devils. Duke cruised through three early home games before two potentially tough roadies against Xavier and Michigan. Neither the Musketeers or the Wolverines provided much of a challenge, and now Duke is back home to take on a Cal squad that will be their toughest non-conference test until they visit UConn in late January.
A week ago I characterized Cal's game against Georgetown as a ‘must win' if the Bears were serious about meeting their own high expectations. The expectations should be very different for this game. Duke is one of a handful of teams that define success this year as a Final Four appearance, and they are playing at home where they are very tough to beat. A Cal loss should not be a cause for concern unless Duke runs the Bears off the court. Even then, I fully expect Cal to compete and justify their lofty ranking, win or lose.
Last year Duke was almost certainly the 5th best team in the country. They finished the regular season 24-5 with losses to Notre Dame, Kentucky, UConn, Maryland and NC State. Those first four teams all ended up with a seed of 2 or higher in the NCAA tournament. They finally fell to Stanford in the elite 8.
The fact that Duke has been so strong both this year and last year is a testament to the ridiculous wealth of talent head coach Joanne McCallie has recruited over the last three years. Katie Heckmann, Amber Henson, Richa Jackson, and Chloe Wells are all really talented players, and due to injury (and in Wells' case, ineligibility) Duke has been without all four. But don't cry any tears - Duke still has an 8 player rotation as talented as any team in the country.
Duke's success largely rests on the talents of four players who were all underclassmen last year and combined to lead Duke to impressive heights despite their youth. Now Chelsea Gray, Haley Peters and Tricia Liston are all juniors. Toss in sophomore Elizabeth Williams and an excellent supporting cast and you're got a pretty good formula for success.
Players to Watch
Chelsea Gray - Many have argued that the reason the Pac-12 can't consistently compete with other conferences like the ACC and the Big East is because prospects like Chelsea Gray pick schools 3,000 miles from home. Gray graduated from St. Mary's high school in Stockton with Afure Jemerigbe, and although she considered Cal she ultimately picked Duke, and you certainly can't argue she made the wrong choice because she's done quite well for herself on Tobacco Road. Although I will argue that she made the wrong choice, because I think it's clear that Cal is the best place for any player named Gray.
Gray is an elite point guard and a brilliant shooter. Over the course of her career she's a 43% 3 point shooter, and her assist-to-turnover ratio is an impressive 5-1. That's in part a function of sub-par competition, but still. 35 assists to 7 turnovers. Duke has an impressively balanced offense, but if there's one player Duke relies on more than anybody else it's Gray.
Elizabeth Williams - The 6'3'' national freshman of the year led Duke in scoring last year, but her 2012-13 season has been hampered by a stress fracture from last season that has stubbornly refused to heal. The pain has limited her minutes, but not her effectiveness when on the court. Duke is hoping to rest her so that she's 100% for ACC play, and it will be interesting to see how much she'll play against Cal's formidable front line. She did play 26 minutes against Xavier and 29 minutes against Michigan, so either she's getting healthier or Duke has decided she's too important to keep on the bench. Good news for women's basketball, bad news for Cal.
Tricia Liston - The 6'1'' wing is a versatile nightmare matchup for any defender. Capable of lighting it up behind the arc as much as she is capable of battling for rebounds down low, she'll likely be a major handful. I would guess that Afure Jemerigbe will likely draw the unenviable task of defending her, and I'm not really sure if there's anybody else on the roster with enough size and speed to slow her down. We'll see!
Keys to the Game
Boyd vs. Gray. I don't know if they will be guarding each other - last week I assumed that Brittany would guard Sugar Rodgers but Layshia ended up drawing much the assignment. But regardless, the battle of the point guards should be one to watch. Last year Brittany brought her A game against Stanford and Notre Dame, and she seems like the type of player who relishes the challenge of going against the best, whether it be Skylar Diggins or Chelsea Gray. Getting her best will be absolutely necessary.
Can the press force turnovers? Duke's offense is scary good. They shoot the ball lights out from everywhere and they rebound the ball. But if they have a weakness, it's occasional turnover problems. The best way to stop a good shooting team is to prevent them from getting shots off. But if Chelsea Gray's game has taken another leap it could be a long game. This will be a great test to see if Cal's new press translates against the elite.
And this question can easily be flipped - Duke will also run a full court press and Cal certainly showed that they can occasionally still be vulnerable to turnover issues. This all falls in with the point guard battle discussed above.
An advantage in depth? Because of Duke's deluge of injuries the Blue Devils have been forced to perhaps give younger players more playing time than they would have otherwise. Duke only has 5 players who were part of last year's rotation available right now, and one of those 5 players is a maybe limited Elizabeth Williams. Two freshmen and a sophomore who saw limited action last year fill out the rest of the 8 player rotation. I don't know how much trust Joanne McCallie is willing to put in her younger players, but if Duke shortens their rotation, Cal might be able to use their depth and athleticism to wear them down.
And I've just spent 1,000 words previewing a game that most of you won't be able to see. I hate road games. Why can't every other conference have their own network?!?