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NCAA Women’s Tournament 2011: Duke on the Outside Looking In

You look at the Philadelphia regional and it is easy to create a multitude of story lines.

From a return home to the city of Brotherly Love for Connecticut Huskies coach Geno Auriemma to Georgetown and DePaul finally arriving to the ‘big stage’. There is also the emergence of the Big East as the premier league in women’s basketball (no matter what those from the Pac 10 have to say, right Nate?).

Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma  jokingly said, "We have been auditioning different places for the Big East Tournament, so this is as good a place as any. I don’t know how Duke got in."

Duke comes in as the only member of the party not a member of the Big East. However, It is not something that they don’t want to talk about.

"We're not playing a league; we're playing opponents," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "We're not interested in leagues. We're interested in the teams in front of us, and there's only one team in front of us —DePaul."

The Big East is deep. They have more teams than any league in the country so they have opportunities to play more good teams with a variety of styles of play.

The sheer number of team allows an enormous amount of depth that other leagues can’t counter. You want to run up and down and create a lot of possessions? DePaul and Syracuse have prepared you for that. You want a defensive battle that makes every point critical? Rutgers and West Virginia has already done that to you. You want finesse? Connecticut and DePaul have finesse covered.

"We have too many teams in our league,’’ Auriemma said. "So whenever you have too many you’re going to get a lot of everything. And in our league you’ve got four or five of the best teams in America that are in this tournament in the Sweet 16. And sometimes people overlook that and say, `Well, you’ve got some teams in your league that don’t measure up against the rest of the country.’ Well, I don’t think you can look at it that way. I think you can just look at what our best teams do.

"Year in and year out, our best teams go in the NCAA tournament and we play better than whatever we’re seeded. And that was the case again this year. And there’s other leagues around the country that people say are really, really good, but they’d be hard pressed to finish where they finish in their league if they played in our league. So I’m not surprised by the teams that are left. There could be eight teams left (come Sunday) and there’s still going to be a bunch of Big East teams playing, I think.’’

Duke this season has taken on Pittsburgh and Connecticut. Vastly different teams that yielded vastly different results, partially because of the Blue Devils difficulty of putting the ball in the basket. Duke defeated Pittsburgh 93-55 on outstanding shooting against an overmatched opponent. Duke suffered a crushing 32-point defeat at the hands of Connecticut. That defeat is not something that they are getting hung up on.

"You have to learn from everything win or lose," McCallie said. "That was a thumping. That happens sometimes. It’s life. A team gets hot and you don’t respond well, you don’t do  a good job. We take to heart, getting better. It’s a big theme with us. We’re trying to play our best basketball at this time of the year."

Duke averages 71.4 points per game but only 64.8 games versus ranked teams. The Blue Devils are 9-3 versus ranked teams but have made an art of winning games close. They only win by an average of 2.2 points per game against ranked opponents.

"Jasmine Thomas has an awful lot to do with that," McCallie said. "As a senior leader and a person who has been in almost every circumstance possible and given the schedule that we’ve played, Jasmine has a lot of confidence. She’s had game winners on the defensive side of the ball, on the offensive side of the ball and she’s relentless. I think that is what makes her an All-American. I think that’s what makes her a special kind of player. I also think some of the other players have caught on to that. It’s been neat to see other folks step up as well."

Others have stepped up for Duke. Jasmine Thomas is still the only player for Duke to average double figures in points. But they have 6 players who average at least 6 points and a 7th who's right outside of that.

"Our keys are playing how we’ve been playing," said McCallie. "Our offense has been flowing beautifully if you look at the ACC tournament and you look at what we’ve been doing the last six games. Hopefully we can keep attacking the hoop. Defending DePaul is very tricky because of their ability to go inside - outside with three point shooting in the transition. We need to be on that big time. We are going to have to limit them in transition, keep them out of the paint, no lay ups, no threes and do an inside out defense. They’re balanced, very balances and a very strong team."

DePaul has had a somewhat unexpected season.

They were picked to finish 6th in their own league and it wasn’t until they crushed Stanford in an offensive showcase, 91-71, that people sat up and paid attention. DePaul is a veteran team with 9 juniors and seniors on their team. They have been through a number of injuries and have finally been able to put together a team to make a run. Their experience led them to their highest finish ever in the Big East, 2nd.

DePaul is a fluid offensive team that has the ability to play pretty basketball and score from anywhere on the court. Their lack of size has been an issue at times - after busting out of the gates to a 23-2 start DePaul finished a disappointing 8-4 including a 23-point drubbing by UConn and a 13-point defeat to Louisville.

While DePaul can score in large bunches, that doesn’t have coach McCallie worried.

"Our scoring is the highest it's ever been, our assists are the highest they've ever been and our turnovers are as small as they've ever been," McCallie said. "We need that trend to continue in order to advance."

The key for Duke will always be scoring enough points.

The object of the game is actually to put the ball in the basket and against the elite Duke has struggled. McCallie places emphasis on the last 6 games is a bit skewed. Two of those games were against a North Carolina team that hasn’t played a lick of defense all season. College players should be able to hit lay ups and that is what those games were layup lines. In addition, it took 45 2nd half points to beat a Marist team and an injury to the Red Foxes best player Erica Allenspach.

While Duke’s focus needs to be on the offensive end, DePaul’s energy needs to focused on the defensive end. Different DePaul players in recent games have taken time to pick up 2 fouls early in the game including all everything guard Sam Quigley, Keisha Hampton and Felicia Chester. DePaul desperately needs to keep their best players on the floor.

Duke might be an outsider in Philadelphia, but they have more than enough to crash the party and send the Big East back home to claim dominance in the number of bids they received.