6:30 p.m. EST
Cameron Indoor Stadium - Durham, N.C.
All the statistical ratings that have published predictions are predicting the Duke Blue Devils to not only beat the Wake Forest Demon Deacons but win big tonight on senior night.
And it's clear why: they're one of the top 10 offenses in the nation, buoyed by a nation-high three point percentage of 41.9%, and they lead the ACC in opponents' field goal percentage during conference play.
Yet the one thing that could undermine the predictions is their lack of a point guard - more specifically, the lack of a real point guard rotation of any type at all.
Following the news on Monday that sophomore point guard Alexis Jones would be out for the remainder of the season with an ACL injury, we learned during the week that reserve point guard Chloe Wells is no longer with the team (under mysteriously odd circumstances). With senior Chelsea Gray's career already having ended due to a knee injury, the Blue Devils find themselves navigating an end-of-season run - with the ACC and NCAA tournaments looming - without a natural point guard.
Madeline Carrington of the Duke Chronicle reports that, "Junior Ka'lia Johnson and seniors Tricia Liston and Richa Jackson will have to step up to fill in as the team's floor general." Tonight we get to see how effective their point guard by committee approach is when Duke hosts Wake Forest tonight, might help us begin to answer some key questions about how they navigate the path forward.
How will the point guard by committee approach affect the offense?
You'll be forgiven if you don't really know much about who Ka'lia Johnson is - she has played just 24 minutes in the last four games and averages 9.7 minutes per game in her career. More specifically to the point of her readiness to assume major point guard minutes, Johnson, who was just the second person to be named an All-Metro first team four times in four years as a high school point guard, has recorded just 6 assists to 19 turnovers thus far this season (an assist to turnover ratio of 0.31).
Jackson and Liston already play larger roles on the team, but neither of them has an assist-to-turnover ratio greater than 1.0 either - Jackson only averages one assist per game. In other words, Duke won't even have an efficient ball handler on the roster entering tonight's game. For a team with strengths of spotting up to shoot threes and getting the ball into the post with Elizabeth Williams, it would certainly be reasonable to expect a drop-off in offensive efficiency. That drop-off might manifest itself on the surface of the box score in the form of turnovers: Duke is already eighth in the conference in turnover rate during conference play thus far, according to WBB State, and that's with Jones in the lineup. Without her in the lineup, just getting into her offense could be a challenge if teams apply pressure.
Fortunately for Duke, Wake Forest isn't a team that forces a lot of turnovers but it's something worth watching in today's game.
How will the change affect the defense?
Perhaps the bigger issue for Duke is on the defensive end, especially with the way fouls are being called on the perimeter this season.
While Duke has been the second-rated defense in conference play, according to WBB State, the now-injured Jones had been playing nearly 40 minutes with the exception of blowout wins. They'll now not only have to replace her ballhandling offensively, but also her ability to pressure on the other end. Jackson is capable of applying pressure and forcing turnovers, but the question moving forward might be how they respond to quicker guards and whether trying to keep up will result in increased fouling.
If there is a silver lining in all of this, it might be that Liston will have an opportunity to showcase the range of her skills for WNBA scouts on both ends of the floor: she has already been picking up some of the ball-handling slack in Gray's absence; now we'll see if she can do that over the course of a full game and lead a team through the tournament(s) by picking up some of the slack defensively as well.
How will all of this affect Duke's tournament standing? As of Monday, both Charlie Creme of ESPN and Steven Bell of the S-Factor had the Blue Devils as a #2 seed, which makes sense given what they've done thus far this season. But what happens if Duke drops these last two games and then struggles in the 2014 ACC Tournament?
Hypothetically, losing to Wake Forest - a team with a RPI of 106 - would be damaging to Duke's selection sheet on its own. But a loss to Wake coupled with a loss to surging North Carolina in the final game of the ACC regular season could be disastrous: the would leave Duke at 11-5 in conference play and at risk of missing out on one of the coveted double byes in the ACC Tournament. Duke couldn't beat UNC at home with Jones; their chances of doing so without Jones are slim.
Fortunately, the most likely scenario for Duke probably does include them getting a double bye as one of the top four teams in the conference no matter what.
North Carolina is playing Notre Dame in South Bend today - a loss would leave them at 11-6 at the very least, no matter what else happens. N.C. State then gets Notre Dame on the final day of conference play - a loss would leave them at 11-5 and the Blue Devils has the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Wolfpack. So a win today would go a long way to helping Duke secure the second seed in the conference tournament. And that should help them maintain their spot as a top seed in the tournament, barring a hot streak by other candidates: getting the byes in the ACC Tournament prevents them from suffering a damaging upset if they were to draw a bad match up and, most of all, some more time to figure things out with the roster they have.
Although McCallie told the Duke Chronicle she doesn't "think [seeding is] very relevant", winning tonight's game is significant insofar as it will help them avoid any major damage to their NCAA Tournament selection sheet.
For more on the Blue Devils' current situation, check out our storystream about Duke's injury woes.