Game of the day: #3 Duke hosts #17 North Carolina on ESPN2

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

With Duke facing North Carolina tonight and the additions made to the Wade Watch List, we take focus on the role of Tricia Liston in helping the Blue Devils deal with Chelsea Gray's absence.


Duke Blue Devils (22-2) vs. North Carolina Tar Heels (29-7)

7 p.m. Eastern

Cameron Indoor Stadium

TV: ESPN2 | Online: WatchESPN

WBB State preview statistics

Duke and UNC is always an exciting college basketball rivalry, but tonight's game also has implications for what's shaping up to be "a compelling race" for a top seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, as described by ESPN's Charlie Creme:

...a Blue Devils loss to North Carolina on Big Monday (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET) could put the Cardinals back on the top line. The margins just might be that narrow for the next month... although both Cardinals losses were on the road, Duke's losses, even against the nation's best, were at home. This is why the margin between the two is so small. It might come down to viewing who the Blue Devils are now versus who they were before Chelsea Gray's season-ending knee injury. At this point, it's too soon to make an absolute determination whether Duke has lost anything tangible.

To Creme's point about injured Duke point guard Chelsea Gray, how Duke deals with her absence tonight might be pretty significant.

UNC is an uptempo team that is top 10 in the nation in forcing opponent turnovers this season (28% turnover rate), according to WBB State; Duke is a more turnover prone team (21.9%, 12th in the ACC) with one of the most efficient offenses in the nation. Duke's loss to Notre Dame was an example of how those numbers can play out: although Duke ultimately won that turnover battle for the game, Duke had 10 of their 16 turnovers in the second half as Notre Dame pulled away to win by an 88-67 margin.

To Creme's point, Gray's absence might not have made any tangible impact on their won/loss record, but there's little question that having Gray's ball handling efficiency against Notre Dame would have helped keep them in the game.

The players responsible for picking up that ball handling slack in Gray's absence have been sophomore Alexis Jones and senior Tricia Liston, both of whom were among the 10 players added to the 2014 Wade Watch list to give Duke four representatives on the list. Jones was an integral part of Duke's Elite Eight run after Gray's injury last season, but Liston's contributions this season are particularly noteworthy given her improvement.

Liston currently leads Duke in minutes, points, free throw percentage, three point shooting, and any measure of scoring efficiency, according to WBB State. But the most important thing, as noted a month ago, is that Liston has proven to be more than merely a 3-point shooter.

Of course, Liston did become Duke's all-time leading three point shooter a few games after Gray sustained her injury. But Liston has been responsible for handling the ball more often with Gray out and has done a reasonable job this season, though you'd probably never confuse her numbers for those of an elite point guard. She matched a career-high with 12 rebounds against Virginia and had her third double-double of the season (also a career-high) on Thursday against Clemson. In a one-point win against Miami, Liston had a career-high 29 points. Equally important during that time: Liston is shooting 61.1% in the seven games following the Boston College game.

For those with an eye on the 2014 WNBA Draft, Liston's ability to improve her production and efficiency despite taking on more responsibility is a major positive for her. Where she goes in the draft might depend on team need, but if she can lead this Duke team to a top seed in the tournament and another deep tournament run doing as much as she has done thus far in Gray's absence it will certainly help her draft stock.

For more on potential draft prospects, check out our 2014 WNBA Draft prospect watch storystream.

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