Duke's McCallie rides wave of success

Duke women’s basketball coach Joanne McCallie isn’t a big fan of monopolies—at least of the one the University of Connecticut has on women’s basketball. “Connecticut has had a monopoly on the market for some time now,” she says. “We have to create a more interesting market. It’s up to us and other teams to enter the fray there and really battle and do what we do.”

McCallie’s course of action won’t include invoking the Sherman Antitrust Act on Geno Auriemma and his squad, but she has implored her second-ranked Blue Devils to take action when they meet the top-ranked Huskies at the 2013 Jimmy V Women’s Basketball Classic on Dec. 17 at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for us,” says McCallie, who is embarking on her seventh season at the helm in Durham, where she boasts a 174-35 record (77-11 in the ACC, 13-3 in the ACC Tournament). “It’s great that teams with such tradition are playing against each other. The environment will be great, and the cause is great.”

The 2013 Women’s Jimmy V will be Duke’s fifth appearance in the tournament, and they are 4-0, including a 76-65 win over No. 2 Tennessee back in 2002, and the thrilling 61-58 win over No. 7 Texas A&M in 2010, the last time Duke hosted a game in the Classic.

McCallie, aka “Coach P.,” has established some great environments in her 21-year career as a coach. Previously known as Joanne Palombo during her playing days at Northwestern (1984-87), where she ranks seventh in school history in assists, McCallie has left a trail of winning programs, as evidenced by her 490-183 record (a .728 winning percentage).

At Maine, she was 167-73 in eight years, and at Michigan State, 149-75 in seven years. McCallie has taken 17 teams to the NCAA Tournament, seven to the Sweet 16, five to the Elite Eight, and one, 2005 Michigan State, to the Final Four and the National Championship game. She also was an assistant at Auburn for four years, where she earned a reputation as a first-class recruiter, and was part of teams that went to back-to-back NCAA Championship games and an Elite Eight.

Coach P. is the first coach to win conference Coach of the Year in four different conferences (ACC, Big Ten, America East and North Atlantic), is one of two coaches to lead two different programs to 30-win seasons, and to lead two different teams to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. She’s also one of only three coaches to get three different schools to the Tournament.

Perhaps as interesting as those figures is the fact that she was unaware of any of those accomplishments. “Wow, those are interesting facts; I never knew some of that stuff,” she says with a laugh. “I’m really fortunate to have had great teams and players and people that have been willing to buy in. I’ve also had great staffs, people that are working with me and are philosophically on the same page.”

Spreading her wisdom also is satisfying. “I love the fact I’ve been at three different places,” McCallie says. “A lot of coaches have been at their school for 25 years or more, the same school. I just think there’s something unique about being at different schools and having success at different schools because it’s tough to start over. It’s hard to imagine that I’ve started over three times.”

Of course, starting over at Duke wasn’t as drastic as at Maine or Michigan State, but to McCallie’s credit, she has not only sustained but built on the foundation she inherited. Under her watch, Duke has gone to seven straight NCAA Tournaments and reached four straight Elite Eights.

Within the ACC, the Blue Devils have had what might be considered a “Connecticut-like” stranglehold, having won four straight regular-season titles and three Tournament titles in four years.

McCallie is wary of the field that is hot on her team’s trail but likes her team’s versatility. “Every year is different and every year is really exciting,” she says. “This year it’s exciting because there are so many different people that can step up and do different things on both sides of the ball. So we have more people that can make great defensive plays, we have more people that can make offensive plays, and there’s a unique versatility about this team. With people playing different positions and being able to be more accustomed to doing that, hopefully defensively we can be a little bit more sophisticated with some of the experience we have returning. So they’re a lot of fun to coach.”

Duke returns all five starters from last year’s team and its top seven scorers, led by junior F/C Elizabeth Williams, and senior guards Chelsea Gray and Tricia Liston, and also brings in the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class.

Possibly the most important returnee is Gray, the All-America point, who suffered a dislocated kneecap last Feb. 17 and missed the Blue Devils’ postseason run that ended in the Elite Eight, with an 87-76 loss to Notre Dame.

McCallie feels the loss of Gray, the 2013 ACC Co-Player of the Year (with Maryland forward Alyssa Thomas) at the end of last season and her return for this one has fueled the Blue Devils. “We do feel like we were robbed of some special time together because that team was beginning to really understand each other and understand the whole process when Chelsea went down,” she says. “You do want to make up for lost time a little bit. You just feel like you missed out. It was unfortunate, but something certainly to motivate for the future.”

That future features the Dec. 17 Jimmy V. Classic match-up with UConn.