DURHAM, N.C. — Duke is back in its usual spot among the elites in women's basketball after a one-year absence.
The ninth-ranked Blue Devils (27-5) earned their first top-10 ranking in two years just in time for the NCAA Tournament, and are in line to host a four-team subregional as a top-16 overall seed when the bracket is revealed Monday night.
Guard Rebecca Greenwell describes this group of Blue Devils as "a very low-drama team" — in other words, the complete opposite of a year ago. Duke missed the tournament for the first time since 1994 last year and then conducted a two-month review of the program by the school's human resources department after two of the team's best players left.
"I think once a program is vetted like ours was," coach Joanne P. McCallie said, "there's such a clarity about what we want to accomplish together."
They've accomplished a lot already this season: A year after finishing in a seventh-place tie in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings, the Blue Devils went 13-3 in the league to earn a share of second place. They won 10 consecutive games and advanced to the championship game before losing to four-time champion Notre Dame.
"Last year was kind of a motivating factor for us — lesson learned," sophomore Faith Suggs said. "This year, watching everyone grow together is a really good thing, and hopefully we'll continue it in the next couple of years."
This Duke team is incrementally better than last year's in most of the lines on the stat sheet. The biggest difference is in turnovers, both gained and lost. These Blue Devils have turned it over 95 fewer times than last year while forcing 68 more from their opponents.
The major reasons for that is the presence of guard Lexie Brown, who sat out last season after transferring from Maryland, and the maturation of six players who are now sophomores — chiefly Kyra Lambert, who started at point guard last season as a freshman. Those two have created what McCallie calls "a ripple effect" that makes things easier on everyone else on the roster.
"Chemistry is one of those intangibles that's hard to pinpoint," McCallie said. "This team plays together simply much better, No. 1. We have better ball-handling. You can't add Lexie Brown and not have better ball-handling. You can't add Lexie and think that your defense is not going to change, because she plays both sides of the ball. Everything kind of makes sense."
Last year's team lost more games than usual for a Duke squad— eight in ACC play alone, the most since the 1993-94 team that missed the tournament — and then lost players. Leading scorer and rebounder Azura Stevens left for Connecticut, and guard Angela Salvadores of Spain turned pro.
After the lengthy review of the program — the specific reason for which has never been made public — athletic director Kevin White kept McCallie as the coach and pledged his support for her.
For a program that until then had been a model of consistency, the climb back up the rankings has been satisfying.
"It feels amazing. I easily could have just thrown in the towel and kind of made excuses for myself and my team, but I really tried to stay positive throughout the whole process and put my frustrations and work ethic into getting better individually and as a team," Greenwell said. "It feels great that it's paid off. We've had a great season so far, and we still have a lot of work left to do."