Preview: #2 Duke at #9 Cal - Brandon's return boosts Bears

Chelsea Gray is coming home to Northern California. Can Cal send her back east unhappy? - USA TODAY Sports

As Cal unveils a Final Four banner, a team with the talent and pedigree to take a trip to the final weekend of the NCAA tournament this year is visiting Haas Pavilion. What will it take for Cal to win this titanic battle?

I'll admit, 48 hours ago I wasn't particularly high on Cal's chances to beat Duke. I'm still thinking that Duke is the favorite tomorrow, but Cal's chances have been helped immeasurably by the surprise, early return of a healthy Gennifer Brandon. Brandon only played 13 minutes, but she recorded three field goals, two rebounds and two blocks in her limited minutes, and evidently looked like her typical, bouncy self.

And why would Cal, a top 10 team coming off a Final Four appearance and playing at home, need everybody healthy to feel confident about their chances against anybody? Well, because Duke is really, really good. Last year, they only lost three games, and two of them came after their all-everything point guard (and Stockton native) Chelsea Gray injured her knee. Without that injury Duke likely would have grabbed a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and very easily could have made the Final Four rather than only the Elite Eight.

And Duke returns, healthy, every starter from last year's team. If UConn weren't returning nearly as many starters from a National Title team, Duke would be a deserved pre-season #1.

Rotation

Starters

Sr. point guard Chelsea Gray; So. guard Alexis Jones; Sr. guard Tricia Liston; Sr. forward Haley Peters; Jr. center Elizabeth Williams

Gray, Liston and Williams are all potential All-Americans. Williams was Duke's leading scorer in 2012-13 despite being hobbled by a chronic foot injury that gradually healed over the course of the season. Gray is what Cal fans imagine Brittany Boyd being this year if she does improve her outside shooting ability. And Tricia Liston is simply one of the best pure shooters in all of college basketball. Any one of those three would star on any non-UConn team in the country.

Peters is a rebounding vacuum with the ability to step back and hit a three. Jones is a combo guard who tends to set up her very talented teammates, as her 4 assists/game from the off-guard position shows.

Bench

Sr. guard Chloe Wells; Jr. forward Richa Jackson; Fr. guard Rebecca Greenwell; Fr. forward Oderah Chidom; Fr. forward Kendall Cooper

It's tough to say exactly what Duke's rotation will look like, in part because Cal will be their first game of the season. But the hypothetical talent is mind-boggling. Wells and Jackson were both competent if unspectacular role players last season. They will probably be the first choices off the bench to start the year. But Duke has three freshmen that ESPN graded as five star recruits waiting for an opportunity, along with a 'lowly' four star. While I'm afraid of playing Duke before our freshmen have had a chance to get a few games under their belt, I'm equally afraid of playing Duke when their freshmen have gotten settled.

Statistical Profile

SHOOTING EFFICIENCY BALL CONTROL DEFENSE REB/BLK
FG%
2FG%
3FG%
eFG%
PPWS
FT%
True%
Pos/40
O-PPP
D-PPP
Floor%
TOPG
TORt
APG
A/TO
A/B%
FG%
2FG%
3FG%
TOF
OppTR
RPG
Reb%
BPG
FPG
45.4
7
46.7
33
40.5
1
49.7
10
1.06
10
74.1
42
53.5
10
72.9
101
1.023
9
0.737
5
42.3
8
16.0
140
22.0
123
15.9
20
0.990
49
56.0
164
34.1
9
36.4
10
28.7
79
19.7
33
27.0
20
38.0
31
54.8
25
5.2
16
14.4
51

What you see above is Duke's statistical profile from last year, which should actually be pretty representative of the type of team they will be this year, what with returning their entire starting lineup and all. You'll notice that they're one of the best shooting teams in the country. The bold numbers at the bottom are national ranks - the lower the better. If you're not sure what any of the stat acronyms are, here's a dictionary.

You'll notice that Duke is elite at pretty much everything, with the exception of offensive turnovers, and maybe rebounding. And yet Cal turned the ball over more and rebounded the ball less than Duke did when the two teams played last year. When a team is this well rounded, it's tough to get a foot hold in the game.

Keys to the Game

1. Win the battle of the board

Last year, Duke was one of the few teams to out rebound Cal. Duke won by 14. Those two sentences are not in the least bit coincidental. Last year, it was nearly impossible for Cal to win games without pulling down more rebounds. It's what they are built to do, and although this is a different team with new players, I suspect that rebounds are still the absolute key.

Last year, it was Chelsea Gray and Tricia Liston who helped out Duke's inside players. Cal will need Gennifer Brandon playing major minutes, and they'll need their guards to help out big time. But it's something they have the talent to do.

2. Hope for an outlier shooting night

Last year, Duke was the single best three point shooting team in the country, and all of the players who shot the ball so well are back. Last year, Cal tended to struggle from behind the arc, although a few new players might help improve that stat. But Duke undeniably has an advantage in terms of shooting.

But Duke is traveling across the entire country. It's their first game of the season. They'll be facing a near sell-out crowd. And most importantly, weird things can happen in a single game. Cal needs Liston, Gray and Jones to have off nights with their jumper. They might need Mikayla Lyles or Afure Jemerigbe or one of the freshmen to hit a few from deep.

3. Unleash the full court press

Honestly, I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, Duke has at least two excellent ball handlers, and they're a veteran team. You wouldn't think that this is a group prone to panicking on the ball or getting overwhelmed with pressure.

On the other hand, about the only thing Duke's offense struggled with last year was turnovers. It's surprising to see knowing that Duke had Chelsea Gray, but it's the truth (to be fair, turnovers were a bigger problem after Gray injured her knee). Maybe, just maybe, Cal can cause havoc with their full court press and get some easy baskets. Last year, Duke turned the ball over 19 times. Cal will have to force around that many or more (and not turn it back over just as often) to win.

This should be a fun one. It's a great opportunity for a young Cal team to measure themselves against a team that expects to find themselves in the Final Four this year. With a full house and a Final Four banner of our own to hang up, it should be a special afternoon, win or lose.

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