In Division 1 women’s basketball, there’s UConn, Notre Dame and everyone else.
Those two programs have established that they can compete year in and year out, with UConn winning the NCAA championship game in 2013. This season, UConn and Notre Dame went through the regular season and conference tournaments undefeated.
DePaul’s head coach Doug Bruno will be the first to admit that these two teams separate themselves from the rest of the bunch. Bruno, however, eyed another team before the start of the season that could be added into that conversation: Duke.
“Before (point guards) Alexis Jones and (Chelsea) Gray got hurt, I thought it was going to be a three-team race,” Bruno said. “It’s tough to lose those players, but there are still three players who are going to be in the WNBA. This is a great Duke team.”
As Bruno referenced, the Blue Devils had season-ending injuries to the team’s best players. The Blue Devils were left without a point guard and finished second in the Atlantic Coast Conference to Notre Dame.
Still, the Blue Devils didn’t let injuries ruin their season. Duke (28-6) finished the season ranked ninth in the nation and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. In the first round of the tournament, Duke thoroughly handed the 15th-seeded Winthrop, 87-45.
If Duke isn’t on a Notre Dame or UConn level, they are right below it.
Is DePaul on that level? They will find out Monday when they face the Blue Devils at 5:30 p.m. CST.
The Blue Demons (28-6) are in the midst of their best season since the club went to the Sweet Sixteen in 2011. DePaul has won 17 of the last 18 games and were crowned champions of the Big East. Yet, the team is 0-2 against nationally ranked teams like Duke, previously losing to Kentucky and Notre Dame.
The Blue Devils may very well be the litmus test for the Blue Demons Š—ê just don’t tell Bruno that, who dismisses the “moniker ranking” that’s awarded to teams.
“Our programs have been playing ranked teams since I’ve been a coach at DePaul,” Bruno said. “This is our fifth (conference) league now and we’ve played a strong schedule. Our players understand how good Duke’s players are and we’re going to do our best. That’s why it’s a beautiful tournament.”
Duke presents a completely different style than the Blue Demons run. While DePaul is a fast-paced, full-court pressure team, Duke relies on a zone-defense that uses the length of their players and a methodical approach in the half-court for offense.
Duke forward Elizabeth Williams leads a group of tall and strong Blue Devil defenders. The Blue Devils have four players that are taller than six feet. It’s quite a comparison to DePaul, who has often played four guards on the court at the same time.
“We’ve played against a lot of big teams like Marquette and Georgetown,” DePaul forward Megan Rogowski said. “Throughout the season, we’ve been preparing for games like (Monday’s) game against Duke.”
“It’s obvious they’re a big team,” DePaul guard Chanise Jenkins said. “We’re just going to focus on playing our game and executing our game plan well.”
It has been a season of preparation for the Blue Demons. In 2012, the team exited the first round of the NCAA tournament against Oklahoma State in a disappointing 73-56 loss. Since that game, Bruno and his players have been hard at work to get better.
A common area that Bruno has stressed throughout the season is eliminating slippage into unintelligent plays. DePaul suffered key losses to Kentucky and Northwestern earlier in the season, which Bruno says were a result of playing unintelligent.
Bruno, though, says that the team has vastly improved in that area. The Blue Demons rallied down the stretch on Saturday against Oklahoma after blowing a 19-point leading the second half to pull out a 104-100 win.
“I’m just thrilled to be here,” Bruno said. “The game we played (against Oklahoma) is the exact same game we played against Northwestern where we gave 55 points in the second half and got beat. We let up 55 points against Kentucky and Marquette and got beat. Yesterday, we gave up 66 points and didn’t rebound, but we won … I’m really thrilled about that. We finished the game yesterday. The kids answered yesterday. This team has shown to the ability to respond from these poor second halves.”
On top of the challenges that Duke presents on the court, the Blue Demons also face another factor heading into Monday’s game: the crowd. The two teams square off at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the home of the Blue Devils.
Bruno notes that his team will have to deal with it. The DePaul head coach said that all No. 2 seeds will get a home court advantage with the way the NCAA women’s tournament is now structured.
Bruno isn’t focusing on Duke’s home court, nor is he focusing on the mantra that DePaul just has to “survive and advance,” a line common this time of year among NCAA tournament teams.
“‘Survive and advance’ has become a clich’ÛÎ©,” Bruno said. “There’s something to do with dictating your survival. What are we doing to create our survival? Those are the little things that our players have been doing since last year. That’s something that we talk about nearly every day.
“It’s great to get to the round of 32 and we’ll see what we can do to get to 16,” Bruno said.