How does Tuesday's news that Duke point guard Chelsea Gray will not return this season affect the fifth-ranked Blue Devils going forward? Do they still have a shot at making the Final Four? And what other teams might prevent a repeat of last season's national semifinalists (Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford) gathering in New Orleans?
How will the rest of the season play out for Duke?
ACC tournament title remains within reach: Duke is not going to win a national championship without Gray. That much seems safe to say, whether you believed the Blue Devils could cut down the nets with her in the lineup. But strange as it sounds, considering the quality of player we're dealing with (and we're talking about one of the 10 best players in the country), this team can still accomplish what seemed likely with her. Duke can win an ACC championship, win the conference tournament and reach a regional final in the NCAA tournament. So the sky isn't falling in Durham; that's just the ceiling coming into focus for a very good, but not great, team.
The key example to point to is Maryland. Neither Laurin Mincy nor Brene Moseley is as valuable individually as Gray is to the Blue Devils, but taken in combination, and given the lack of backcourt depth at Maryland, their season-ending injuries took as much of a toll on that team's championship aspirations as Gray's will on Duke. Yet look at the polls. Maryland remains solidly in the top 10 and in contention for a No. 2 seed. With Alyssa Thomas, Tianna Hawkins and the cast around them, Maryland still has the talent to beat any team outside the top four; it just no longer has the requisite pieces to break into that top four. The same now goes for the Blue Devils. Take Elizabeth Williams, Alexis Jones, Tricia Liston, Haley Peters and Chloe Wells against Florida State, Maryland, Miami and North Carolina, Duke's final four ACC games, and, in even the most pessimistic analysis, you have a talent toss-up.
Duke's depth and the talent gap at the top of the sport are such that Gray's injury doesn't knock this team down as much as it eliminates their potential to take a step up. -- Graham Hays
Still the ACC's most-talented team: After Gray went down against Wake Forest, the Blue Devils struggled to escape with a win, even at home. Now, Duke's coaching staff and the rest of the roster have time to prepare, practice and make adjustments around Gray's absence. This is still the most talented team top to bottom in the ACC. The Blue Devils can survive the rest of the regular-season schedule, despite the next four games being their toughest stretch of the year. Winning three of those four games is possible. Florida State and North Carolina are home games and Miami has been struggling of late. The toughest matchup of the bunch is Maryland, and Gray was the catalyst when Duke dominated the second half against the Terps eight days ago in Durham. However, a lone loss to Maryland still gives Duke the outright ACC regular-season title. That remains a very reasonable expectation even without the team leader. -- Charlie Creme
Sunday's date with Terps could spell trouble: When you're a team that tends to be challenged in half-court offense, you really need someone who can expertly direct your transition offense and has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. Gray, in the midst of an All-American-level season for Duke, was terrific at both those things. With her out, those forming the collective effort at guard really have to take better care of the ball. With Gray, the Blue Devils had 421 assists to 405 turnovers. Without her, it's 285 to 339.
Duke at least has a deep bench, with a lot of that depth at guard. The Blue Devils have no gimme games for the rest of the regular season. And Sunday's trip to Maryland looks especially daunting without Gray, who torched the Terps for a career-high 28 points in a victory Feb. 11 in Durham.
Still, if veterans such as Chloe Wells and Richa Jackson step forward to help freshman Alexis Jones, that -- combined with the perimeter abilities of bigger players Tricia Liston and Haley Peters -- can still get the Blue Devils through the ACC season undefeated.
More likely, though, they might fall at Maryland, but win the league with just one loss. An Elite Eight finish is not beyond Duke's reach, but the Blue Devils' Final Four hopes seem much dimmer. -- Mechelle Voepel
Loss might be too great to overcome: With Gray sidelined, Duke might have trouble closing out the ACC schedule with a title. Games against Maryland, Miami and North Carolina are still to come before the conference tournament, and two of those games are on the road. Gray was a do-everything player for the Blue Devils, and more than that she was the team's emotional leader. It is well-worn wisdom that it takes guard play to make a long NCAA tournament run, and that's a huge hole to fill for Joanne P. McCallie. -- Michelle Smith
Outside of the nation's top-four ranked teams, who has the best chance to get to the Final Four?
With Gray, Duke might have been the biggest threat to change the composition of what could be a repeat of last year's Final Four. While the Blue Devils can still be ACC champs, being that No. 5 team is asking too much without Gray. That position now falls to Cal, a team Duke beat by 14 back in early December. The Bears are a better team now, as their win over Stanford illustrated. That game also proved that Cal could break into that elite group. The Bears have size, experience and versatility in their offense, all characteristics that give them a chance. The big test for them will be a possible matchup with the Cardinal in the Pac-12 tournament. If Cal can prove that Jan. 13 win can be repeated, the Bears will have realized that potential. It also could be enough to get them a No. 1 seed. -- Charlie Creme
Kentucky, which has bounced back strongly from a loss at home to Georgia on Feb. 3, is a very difficult team to play when the Wildcats are hitting shots from the perimeter. They're a much stronger squad inside this season, led by DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker. Kentucky should be a difficult matchup in the NCAA tournament.
What about Stallworth's former team, Cal? The Bears are playing with tremendous confidence this season and are a very physical, strong-rebounding team.
And although they are coming off a loss at home to Kentucky, Texas A&M -- behind center Kelsey Bone -- has several players who were with the Aggies in their 2011 NCAA championship season, but didn't play much or at all. Still, they know what it takes to get that far, and would like to be participants in it this time. -- Mechelle Voepel
With Duke's chances to break through to the Final Four seemingly dimmed, Cal is perhaps the next-best bet to break up the party of the four powers. The Bears have beaten Stanford at Maples, they have stayed strong through every challenge in a tough Pac-12, and they have both inside and outside strengths that bode well. -- Michelle Smith
As someone who before the season picked Delaware to reach New Orleans, it is so very tempting to stick with the Blue Hens. Elena Delle Donne is playing as well as she ever has after early-season health concerns; the defense is better than it was a season ago; and the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark, Del., will host the first two rounds to help ease this team into the tournament after last season's second-round exit.
But if we're talking about the best chance to get there, it almost has to be a team likely to land a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, which Delaware is not. Obviously, the draw makes all the difference in the world (i.e., avoiding a regional final against Baylor), but without that knowledge, Cal looks the best hope for a fresh face in New Orleans. There are reasons to keep the bandwagon under the speed limit (free throw shooting and 3-point shooting prominent among them), but Cal has the balance to enter a game against one of the top four teams without having to completely cede any facet of the game. The Bears rebound, they play defense and they take care of the ball. They have players in Brittany Boyd and Layshia Clarendon who might have an element of high risk about them but definitely offer high reward. And like Jeff Walz during Louisville's Final Four run a few seasons ago, Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb is an asset well beyond her limited experience in the lead chair. -- Graham Hays