Commentary

Can Duke compete with UConn?

Blue Devils have lost six straight in series; game on ESPN2 and WatchESPN

Originally Published: December 16, 2013
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsKaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is expected to play Tuesday for the first time since Nov. 11.

There are some "big" games you anticipate with confidence … and others with trepidation. In women's basketball, Connecticut vs. Duke -- No. 1 vs. No. 2 Tuesday (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET) -- is the latter.

For this one, we're all a bunch of Fox Mulders saying, "I want to believe." Yes, I'd bet even most UConn fans would like to see this be an exciting game between two 10-0 teams that sit atop the rankings.

But we know the recent history of this matchup mocks our hope. In the six meetings between UConn and the Blue Devils involving Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie -- from 2007 to 2013 -- "blowout" has been the name of the game.

If you haven't heard the number yet, it will be ingrained in your head by Tuesday's tipoff at Cameron Indoor Stadium: UConn has won those six games by an average of 29.3 points.

The "closest" was a 16-point Huskies win in 2012. The Blue Devils have been held below 50 points in five of the games; in the other, they scored 51.

Duke hasn't just lost these games. The Blue Devils have been crushed; made to look like national championship pretenders, not contenders.

[+] EnlargeChelsea Gray
Lance King/Getty ImagesDespite top-notch talent, Duke and Chelsea Gray have lost their past six games against UConn -- by an average of 29.3 points.

So what will be different this season? Maybe nothing. You know how if you invest in stock, there's a basic rule?

Don't do it? Yeah, well, there's that. But if you are going to invest, then you look at the history of the stock to hopefully give you a reasonable expectation of how it will continue performing.

With that in mind, what is the "reasonable" expectation of this game? UConn will win by double digits, and it ultimately won't be all that interesting a contest.

Yes, even with the Huskies just now getting back key contributors Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck from injuries. Even with the game on the Blue Devils' home court. Even though we really want to believe otherwise.

But then again, we also know that stocks can turn themselves around. So maybe you really can invest some hope in the Blue Devils of Chelsea Gray, Tricia Liston, Elizabeth Williams, Alexis Jones, etc. Maybe this season's Duke squad -- averaging 89.5 points and shooting 43.9 percent from 3-point range -- is up to the task of at least competing with UConn.

We know something will have to give, considering coach Geno Auriemma's Huskies are limiting opponents to 47.5 points per game. (Which is nearly what they've allowed Duke in the past six meetings: an average of 46.8.)

Although it might not sound like it, none of this is actually meant to drag down the Blue Devils before they even take the court. Seriously, it's not. If anything, we hope the opposite. Which is nothing against UConn, a team that has fully earned its favorite status many, many times over. The Huskies are used to playing the "heavy."

Strictly for the fun of it, though, we want this to be a good game. If Duke wins, it will give women's hoops an unexpected and welcomed jolt going into the holidays. If UConn wins, but it's close and competitive, that will be appreciated, too.

Duke hasn't just lost these [past six games vs. UConn]. The Blue Devils have been crushed, made to look like national championship pretenders, not contenders.

But if UConn triumphs by a big margin, Duke will be hearing the national "grumbles" again.

The Blue Devils actually can use the past to their advantage, if they choose to look at it that way. They should let it fire them up. They should take the court ticked off over how the program has played in this marquee matchup since 2007, even though the current Blue Devils, of course, weren't involved in all those games. They should come out intent on proving that they really can go toe-to-toe with the Huskies.

Then, it's a matter of executing what this senior-laded Blue Devils team knows it can do. But that's immensely easier said than done.

UConn has deconstructed Duke each time. It's not that the Blue Devils have ever been anywhere nearly as bad as the Huskies have made them look. But UConn has dictated every aspect of play. What the Huskies didn't take away from Duke, the Blue Devils summarily took away from themselves.

Duke is, obviously, not the only team to be steamrolled by UConn, which specializes in such things. But Duke has been one of the elite women's programs for a while now, able to recruit high-level student-athletes and stockpile talent. And with that status of being one of the VIPs in any sport comes certain obligations and expectations.

This isn't something that the Blue Devils should see as a burden. The Huskies don't see it that way. They like the fact that they are expected to win. They relish the psychological advantage that gives them.

[+] EnlargeJoanne P McCallie
AP Photo/Ted RichardsonJoanne P. McCallie is 184-35 in seven seasons at Duke, with each of the past four seasons ending in the Elite Eight.

This is not meant to say that UConn relies heavily on psyching out all its opponents; the Huskies flat-out get it done on court. They are relentless on the boards, they finish shots, they run their sets, they defend ferociously, year after year after year. If you get to play in a UConn uniform, it's because you've proven you will be going hard every time you step on the floor.

Five programs -- Notre Dame, Stanford, Baylor, Rutgers and St. John's -- have beaten UConn in the previous six seasons that McCallie has been at Duke. In the case of Notre Dame and Baylor, in particular, those teams reached a point where they really believed they were as good as UConn going into those games, and thus went in on level ground.

Has Duke ever believed that? The Blue Devils did get to that place -- really believing they could beat anyone -- under previous coach Gail Goestenkors, but it took a while. Duke's first true breakthrough victory on a national scale was in Goestenkors' seventh season there, when the Blue Devils upset Tennessee in the 1999 NCAA Elite Eight to advance to the program's first Women's Final Four. (McCallie is in her seventh season at Duke.)

Under Goestenkors, Duke played UConn four times, losing the first two and winning the second two.

The latter included a crazy 2004 contest in Hartford won by Jessica Foley's last-second 3-pointer, which not only gave Duke the victory, but also its only lead of that game. Then in the 2006 regional final in Bridgeport, Conn., Duke won 63-61 in overtime.

That sent Duke to the Final Four for the fourth time, and the Blue Devils have not returned since.

Still, during McCallie's time at Duke, the Blue Devils are 184-35. They have made four consecutive Elite Eight appearances. They are usually the "Goliath" to most other teams.

So while the Blue Devils understandably might be irritated hearing about what they haven't done, this -- again -- is the domain of championship-caliber programs. It's certainly not a bad place to be, if you can become comfortable with it.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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