Duke women’s basketball struggles to turn recruiting success into wins

After what would turn out to be their final practice of the year, the members of the Duke women’s basketball team gathered in a room in Cameron Indoor Stadium to watch the NCAA tournament selection show. Sixty-four teams had their names called and received their postseason destinations. For the first time in 21 years, Duke was not one of them.

This was not an expected outcome at the beginning of the season. Duke had signed the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country and was ranked No. 14 in the preseason AP poll. The Blue Devils were picked to finish fourth in the ACC preseason poll. They ended up tied for seventh in the ACC with an 8-8 conference record and 20-12 overall. During the season, Duke fell out of the top 25 for the first time since 1999.

“It is a big kick in the gut,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said after the selection show in March. “Definitely a lot of pain.”

Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the hits didn’t stop with the end of the season. The team’s best player, the versatile 6-foot-6 all-American sophomore Azurá Stevens, decided to transfer, ending up at Connecticut. Freshman Angela Salvadores, who had been named the preseason national freshman of the year by one publication, decided to return to her native Spain. These departures continued a trend, as several assistant coaches and prominent players have opted to leave the program in recent years.

And on April 12, the school announced an evaluation of the women’s basketball program. The website SB Nation reported that it’s an investigation into claims of player and assistant coach mistreatment by McCallie.

McCallie is 245-65 (.790) in nine seasons at Duke. She led the program to four straight Elite Eight appearances from 2010-13, with three ACC tournament championships in that span. Over the past two seasons, though, the Blue Devils have gone 19-12 in conference play despite bringing in recruiting classes ranked No. 3 and No. 1 in the country.

Part of the disconnect between the program’s input and output could be explained in terms of on-court Xs and Os, according to Debbie Antonelli, a former N.C. State basketball player and veteran analyst who works for ESPN, CBS, Raycom, Fox Sports Net and Westwood One.

“What Joanne does offensively and defensively is very predictable,” said Antonelli, who has worked many Duke games over the years. “There is no element of surprise. On defense, they might start the game with two possessions of man, but they are primarily that match-up zone, which is something that she has always played. … Everybody knows the weak area in it is in that high post area, and if you can expose that, you can beat it.

“And then from an offensive standpoint, I don’t think there are really any surprises there. Azurá Stevens was certainly an exceptional, gifted, incredible talent. At 6-foot-6, to be able to do what she could do with the ball in her hands inside and out was unusual in the women’s game. We don’t have many players that are that big that have the face-up game that she has. But I still think there were times when Azurá was able to float out to the perimeter when, at 6-foot-6, no one could guard her on the block.”

The addition of Notre Dame, Louisville and Syracuse to the conference has not been kind to Duke, either. The Blue Devils finished second in the ACC behind the Fighting Irish in the 2013-14 season, fifth behind the three newcomers and Florida State in 2014-15 and then seventh, once again behind those three schools and a few others, last year.

“You can look at a trend of, okay we keep getting these top classes, we keep running the same stuff, eventually, people are going to beat you,” Antonelli said, “Even though you have the No. 1 talent, and you should be able to win those games.”

Citing the ongoing investigation, Duke declined to make McCallie or anyone associated with the program available for interviews.

In addition to the departures of Stevens and Salvadores, freshman Sierra Calhoun, a McDonald’s All-American, transferred to Ohio State midway through the 2014-15 season after starting all 13 games. Former Duke signee Kianna Holland, a finalist for Parade Magazine’s national high school player of the year, left the Blue Devils before playing a game in the 2013-14 season and transferred to Ohio State. After the 2013-14 season, former McDonald’s All-American and starting point guard Alexis Jones opted to transfer to Baylor, closer to her Texas home.

School representatives at Connecticut declined to make Stevens available for an interview. Also, representatives at Ohio State declined to make Calhoun and Holland available for interviews. School representatives at Baylor did not respond to requests for comment.

Four assistant coaches – Joy Cheek, Shannon Perry, Trisha Stafford-Odom and Samantha Williams – have taken lateral positions at other schools during McCallie’s tenure.

“Coaches today have to be able to build relationships with their players so that when you get on them, they understand that the reason you’re getting on them is because you’re trying to help them become better so the team can win,” Antonelli said. “You would wonder, if you have all this talent, what kind of relationship-building skills are there, and maybe that’s something the evaluation will come up with, and that will be able to help Joanne.”

School representatives at Louisville, where Williams is now an assistant coach, declined to make her available for an interview. Also, representatives at Ohio State, where Cheek – a Duke alumna – is an assistant, declined to make her available.

Representatives at UCLA, where Perry is an assistant, did not respond to requests for comment. Stafford-Odom, who left Duke for UNC after the after the 2010-11 season, could not be reached for comment.

McCallie has not shied away from criticizing her team in public in the past. When the Blue Devils lost 83-52 at Connecticut on Dec. 29, 2014, with two players flanking her at the dais, McCallie described the Blue Devils’ performance as a “pathetic display.” After a 2015 loss at N.C. State, when asked about senior Ka’lia Johnson fouling out, McCallie described it as “almost unforgivable on her part.”

“I give her no credit for her fourth and fifth foul. Lack of IQ there,” McCallie said. “Very problematic.”

As a private institution, Duke is under no obligation to share or announce the results of its internal evaluation.

The Blue Devils do not have one of the 20 ranked recruiting classes coming next season. And without Stevens and Salvadores, the talent level will not be the same as it has been in years past. Notre Dame, Louisville, Syracuse and the other ACC schools won’t get any easier to beat.

“Joanne has continued to draw top classes, and yet they have not been able to win at the highest level,” Antonelli said. “I assume that’s something that Duke wants to do, because they have done it historically.”

Laura Keeley: 919-829-4556, @laurakeeley