Commentary

Duke, Jones pass first real test

Originally Published: December 2, 2012
By Graham Hays | espnW

It has been difficult to write much about Duke to this point in the season, mostly because it wasn't clear until this week that the Blue Devils were actually through with their exhibition schedule. (Quick, pick the exhibition opponent: Shaw or Presbyterian?) Sunday's game against No. 10 Cal was the team's first against a ranked opponent and came on the heels of a reasonable, if unremarkable, road test at Michigan in the middle of last week.

So welcome to the season, Blue Devils.

[+] EnlargeAlexis Jones
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeAlexis Jones gives Duke another player besides Chelsea Gray who can handle the ball.

The standout in Sunday's 77-63 win was Tricia Liston, whose 3-pointers during a Duke run in the first half broke open the game and who finished the day with 22 points. All of that and Liston actually saw her 3-point percentage dip on the season, her shooting from the arc "dropping" all the way to 52.5 percent on 25 attempts in six games. But it's not exactly revelatory that Liston, who hit 46 percent of her long-range attempts last season, is a gifted shooter.

It may not be revelatory, either, to say freshman Alexis Jones is a pretty good player -- the whole Hoopgurlz No. 3 overall recruit and USA Basketball experience kind of give that away. But in addition to playing a big role in No. 4 Duke's wins this week, with 9 points and 8 assists against Michigan and 11 points and 4 assists against Cal, her contributions made it easier to see a route to New Orleans for her team this season. Through six games, Jones has 32 assists, just 12 behind All-American Chelsea Gray for the team lead (the freshman also has 23 turnovers, proving only that she is, in fact, a freshman).

Often against Cal, it was Jones bringing the ball up the court, even when she and Gray were on the court together. That's good news for Gray and for the Blue Devils because history suggests the more hands capable of handling the ball the better for championship contenders.

Tennessee's stats from the 2007-08 championship season were unavailable on the school's site, but looking at the other nine teams to win championships since the 2002-03 season, something stands out in the assists column. Only once, Tennessee's other title team in 2006-07, did a team not have at least two players with 100 assists by the end of the season. In six of nine instances, three players had at least 100 assists. And from Sydney Colson to Renee Montgomery, there were some good point guards in that sample. Gray totaled 201 assists last season, but no other player on the roster had more Shay Selby's 69 assists.

Gray got to the free throw line 2.9 times per game last season. Maybe because that's due in part to all of the energy required in other areas. Maybe the two aren't related. But through six games this season, she's getting to the line more than four times per game. Gray doesn't need help to be great, but the more she gets, the better Duke is for it.

Team of the week: Tennessee

There is nothing wrong with struggling to beat Middle Tennessee, even in the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, but it's still impressive to see the Lady Vols come out days after an overtime victory against the Blue Raiders and demolish North Carolina by 45 points in what was supposed to be a marquee game Sunday.

The Tar Heels have long lived on rebound margin and forcing turnovers. Tennessee beat them on the boards 49-36 and finished with more assists (21) than turnovers (20). It was a virtuoso performance from Meighan Simmons (career-high 33 points), whose hot streaks can rival any player in the country, but it wasn't just a solo effort. Chattanooga seems a long time ago.

If Dayton would like to sponsor this designation, it should feel free to have its people get in touch with my people. The Flyers nearly claimed the spot for the second time in the young season. Arizona State might not be the NCAA tournament team of old, at least not yet, but it's not insignificant that Dayton went to Tempe and beat the Sun Devils on their court Sunday, a day after beating UNLV. Add it to victories against DePaul and Vanderbilt for the Flyers.

She also starred: Amy Kame, San Diego

[+] EnlargeAmy Kame
Kelley L Cox/US PresswireSan Diego junior guard Amy Kame barely missed out on a quadruple-double -- twice.

Since I and the rest of the college soccer world (it's possible the order of important is reversed there) were occupying her home turf in San Diego's Jenny Craig Pavilion for the Women's College Cup, Kame and the Toreros went on the road for a tournament at Air Force. All the junior did was come close to pulling a Fat Lever in Colorado, barely missing out on a quadruple-double not once but twice. Kame put up 18 points, 9 steals, 8 rebounds and 7 assists in a win against Boise State. She followed that with 17 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists and 7 steals in a win against Air Force.

She was versatile as a starter last season for a team that won 26 games, but she's almost halfway to matching her total assists last season and San Diego has played just six games.

Woe is Maryland?

What used to be a luxury might now be Maryland's saving grace. Regardless of your rooting interest, any season is more compelling with more championship contenders, so it was just depressing to learn last week that Maryland's Lauren Mincy will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. That comes on the heels of a season-ending injury to Brene Moseley that came before the sophomore's season could even begin, and it leaves the Terrapins decidedly short of point guards as they visit Connecticut on Monday night (ESPN2, 7 ET) and open the ACC season at home against Virginia on Thursday.

So about that saving grace. Maryland's path to an ACC title obviously gets a lot trickier without Moseley and Mincy, and national title aspirations are, at the very least, on hold.

[+] EnlargeAlyssa Thomas
G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty ImagesAlyssa thomas takes care of the ball so well it might help offset two season-ending injuries to Maryland point guards.

But the Terrapins still have Alyssa Thomas.

As a sophomore last season, Thomas ranked 123rd in assist-to-turnover ratio, essentially tied in that spot with Green Bay All-American Juie Wojta. That might sound like a modest ranking, but just about every player ahead of those two forwards was a guard, including some rather notable ones within 20 spots of Thomas in the rankings -- Connecticut's Bria Hartley, Penn State's Alex Bentley and St. John's Nadirah McKenith among them. And Thomas is actually ahead of that pace so far this season (a ratio of 1.59 entering the Connecticut game, compared to 1.33 a season ago).

Thomas surely isn't going to be asked or able to handle all the ballhandling a point guard otherwise would, at least not without wearing out completely by February, but she is a gifted distributor who can keep an offense moving and create opportunities (for instance, eight assists in last week's win at Nebraska). Between her efforts and freshman Chloe Pavlech, Maryland might be able to withstand a double injury blow that would likely cripple most teams.

Not a sister act

This is a little confusing. Anna Freeman has a sister who played basketball at Greensboro College. Courtney Freeman has a sister who currently plays basketball at Chattanooga. But Appalachian State teammates Anna and Courtney, despite the surnames and jersey numbers two digits apart, are entirely unrelated.

The truly confusing part? Stopping the Freemans. Just ask Xavier, which dropped a 77-73 overtime decision against Appalachian State on Friday when the Freemans combined to score 52 points on 21-of-37 shooting. That's good, but it's actually only a modest uptick on their typical production, the pair averaging 39.9 points per game through six games this season.

Chattanooga is the Southern Conference team in the spotlight after its win against Tennessee to open the season, but Appalachian State went 27-7 last season and reached the third round of the WNIT.

Before next weekend

Louisiana Tech at Texas A&M (Tuesday): A rough start against Louisville, Penn State and Connecticut, albeit the first two of those by single digits, knocked the Aggies out of the AP Top 25, but they are back to level after three wins in a row. Louisiana Tech beat Ole Miss on Saturday, but even Teresa Weatherspoon expressed concern about her team's turnovers in that game. Texas A&M outscored foes 72-40 in points off turnovers during its three-game winning streak.

[+] EnlargeJewell Loyd
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireFreshman Jewell Loyd has given Notre Dame a fourth scorer in double figures (12.6 ppg).

Baylor at Notre Dame (Wednesday, ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET): Hey, did you know it's a rematch of the national title game? All right, so that's not the freshest story line. And the circumstances have changed considerably since last we saw these two teams play in Denver. Obviously some of the game's luster depends on Odyssey Sims returning from a hamstring injury to match up against Diggins, but it's worth noting that Niya Johnson, Jordan Madden and Kimetria Hayden have combined for 76 assists and just 34 turnovers this season.

When needed, as in last week's game at Central Michigan that stayed close longer than most might have expected, Skylar Diggins is ready (putting up 25 points, 6 steals, 4 assists and 4 rebounds). But you couldn't ask for much more scoring balance than Notre Dame is getting overall, with four players averaging between 12.6 and 14.6 points per game. It seemed reasonable to assume Kayla McBride would thrive as a go-to scorer, and Natalie Achonwa is playing exactly like her coach and point guard said she would coming off an Olympic appearance. But freshman Jewell Loyd has emerged as a fourth scorer, including a big effort in a challenging game at UCLA (19 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists).

Hofstra at Princeton (Wednesday): Princeton bounced back from giving away a game against one major on the road, when it ceded a double-digit lead at UCLA, by taking out another major at home last week in rolling Rutgers 71-55. This game against surprisingly reeling Hofstra, which lost to an Ivy team in Harvard over the weekend, begins a 16-day stretch in which the Tigers also play Delaware, Villanova, Illinois State and DePaul.

San Diego State at Washington (Wednesday): San Diego State made a statement with a 34-point win against Southern California on Friday, getting 25 points from Courtney Clements, while Washington has three wins in a row since its lone loss. Jazmine Davis was just what the Huskies needed in her freshman season, but she also shot 35.9 percent in putting up a lot of points. So far this season, she's hitting at a 43.4 percnet clip in averaging just shy of 20 points per game.

Penn State at Connecticut (Thursday): One interesting note with Maggie Lucas coming to town is that Connecticut, annually among the leaders nationally in 3-point field goal defense, is allowing opponents to hit at 36.5 percent through six games this season. Given the small sample size, that's not yet a trend, but given Penn State's propensity for turnovers and Connecticut's propensity for forcing them, it could at least be a lifeline.

Iowa State at Iowa (Thursday): The Cyclones have been stifling on defense, limiting opponents to 28.2 percent shooting and holding all but one team to 50 or fewer points in a 5-0 start. If Iowa State's Chelsea Poppens returns from a concussion that sidelined her the past two games, this is also a top-tier post battle with Poppens, 6-foot-7 Anna Prins and 6-foot-3 Hallie Christofferson going against 6-foot-5 Morgan Johnson and 6-foot-4 Bethany Doolittle.

DePaul at Kentucky (Friday): DePaul dropped games against teams that love to run (Dayton) and teams that love to defend (South Carolina). Now the Blue Demons face a team that does both rather well. But DePaul is also coming off perhaps its best performance, Sunday's 89-61 win against Northwestern in which it got 22 points off the bench from Megan Rogowski. The losses aside, DePaul can run and take care of the ball, making for a potentially intriguing game.

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

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