The reigning national champion and still No. 1-ranked Connecticut Huskies (10-0) take to the road tonight to face No. 2 Duke (also 10-0) in Durham, N.C., in the Jimmy V. Classic, and Full Court's ACC beat writer Rob Clough will be on hand to bring readers his analysis of what could prove to be one of the best games of the 2013-14 season. The nationally televised (ESPN2) contest between the two as yet undefeated women's basketball powerhouses tips off at 7 p.m. EST.
The Huskies have had the Blue Devils' number in recent years. UConn owns a 9-3 all-time record in meetings with Duke and has emerged the victor in the last six of what has come to be a series of annual drubbings of its ACC rival. When the two teams last met in January 2013 in Storrs, Conn., the then-No. 3 Huskies handed then-No. 4 Duke its first loss of the 2012-13 season in the form of a 30-point pounding (79-49) behind 21 points and six boards from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and an 18-point, 12-board double-double from Kelly Faris. The UConn defense held Duke spark plug Chelsea Gray to just two points in the outing.
But Faris has now graduated, Mosqueda-Lewis, a preseason All-American, has not played since injuring her elbow on opening weekend in action against Stanford, and starting forward Morgan Tuck also remains sidelined with knee troubles. The Huskies currently suit up just nine players and been largely relying on a seven-player rotation since the start of the season; two of that number are freshmen (Saniya Chong and Tierney Lawlor) and a third (Briana Puldo) a previously little-used sophomore.
Still, while the under-appreciated Husky bench might be relatively short, no one has accused this or any other Geno Auriemma-coached team of lacking talent. And, in this case, the UConn bench has risen to the challenge so well and so quickly that when on Nov. 15, just days after the losses of Mosqueda-Lewis and Tuck were announced, Connecticut steamrolled the then-No. 8 Terrapins, 72-55, Maryland head coach Brenda Frese assessed the situation this way: "[T]hey're the defending national champions for a reason. ... I've said this all along: They went from having nine All-Americans to seven. If they lose a couple more, Geno might have to coach like the rest of us."
Of course, the Blue Devils aren't shy on the talent front, either. Though last season's injury bug bit worst after Duke's loss to the Huskies, this year's edition is for the most part healthy and has tested its mettle against the likes of then-No. 9 Cal (70-58), No. 16 Purdue (99-78) and most recently No. 17 Oklahoma (94-85). Some of those games were closer than expected -- particularly the opener against Cal -- and none of those opponents feature the across-the-board talent level of Connecticut, but then again, who does?
Perhaps most importantly for the Blue Devils, senior forward Haley Peters, who sat out four games due to a knee injury suffered in an early-season game against Vanderbilt, is back in action. Whether or not Peters is 100 percent remains to be seen, but the Sooners will certainly vouch for her ability to lay some hurt on a quality opponent. Peters put up 18 points against Oklahoma last week, though her rebounding (three boards) was off her normal board-banging pace and her turnovers (four) were up over the norm. Peters also posted 14 points, nine rebounds, three steals, two assists and a swat against the Boilermakers on Dec. 5, her first game back from injury.
If the 6-3 Peters is good to go, expect this game to feature one of the best post performances of the season, as despite a bit of a height disadvantage, Peters in tandem with 6-3 Elizabeth Williams, one of the best forward/center's in the college game, should match up well against the Connecticut inside duo of 6-5 Stefanie Dolson and 6-4 sophomore wunderkind Breanna Stewart. And unlike many of the Huskies' national ranked foes, who might boast strength in the post or on the perimeter but generally not both, Duke also fields a strong backcourt in the now-healthy trio of Tricia Liston, the team's leading scorer at 18.3 points per game and a threat from long range where she has netted 31 of her 58 (53.4 percent) attempts so far this season; Alexis Jones, who is hot on Liston's heels with 14.6 points and a sliver under four assists per game; and a now healthy Chelsea Gray, the fifth of the Blue Devil's double-digit scoring options (12.7 points per game) and though she hoists the three-ball less often, joins Liston as a sharpshooting threat, knocking down treys at a 40.9 percent (9-22) clip.
Whether all of this will be enough to overcome the strangehold the Huskies have held on them in their last six meetings, we can only know after the final buzzer sounds. For now, we can know only this: On paper, at least, if there is a team or teams in the country with the right pieces in place to spoil UConn's hopes for another run of undefeated seasons, Duke, at least on paper, stands at the top of the list.