DURHAM, N.C. — At Hampton University World Basketball Headquarters, they've been a mite peeved about their seed in the NCAA women's tournament since it was announced Monday. They have an advocate in Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie.
"Hampton is the greatest No. 15 seed I've ever seen in my life," McCallie said, in advance of Sunday's first-round game against her second-seeded Blue Devils. "They are absolutely terrific. It's the best Hampton team, I think, that's ever been there in the history of the program."
McCallie mentioned how Hampton (28-5) hadn't been tested in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play. That's a bit of a stretch, though only two of the Lady Pirates' final 14 wins were by single digits.
"They belong in the ACC," McCallie said. "They're an ACC team."
She added, "Hampton could have beaten a ton of our teams in the ACC. … If you put them in the ACC, they're as good as most ACC teams, and as athletic as any of them."
The Lady Pirates appreciate the compliment, but they face an XL-sized challenge in Duke (30-2), the ACC regular-season and tournament champs on their home floor.
The Blue Devils have never lost a first-round NCAA tournament game. They've won 35 of their last 37 non-conference games at Cameron Indoor Stadium under McCallie — the two losses were to Connecticut.
Included in that streak was a 72-37 win against Hampton in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament, head coach David Six's first season.
"I've learned a lot about college basketball since then," Six said. "That was my first year, I was coming straight from high school. I learned that you've got to be better prepared. I thought that I didn't do a good job of preparing the young ladies the first year because it was a new experience to me.
"I think I've done a much better job of preparing them. I think we're better prepared."
Preparation or not, Hampton is trying to buck history. No MEAC women's team has won an NCAA game since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1994. No 15-seed has ever won a tournament game; they are 0-78 in the tournament after Saturday.
"We're going to have to limit their offensive rebounding," Six said, "limit our turnovers, obviously defend at a high level, not get overwhelmed by the moment. There's been enough of that for us. We've been in the tournament four years. Let's focus on putting ourselves in a position to be successful now."
Good as the Blue Devils are, they are a markedly different team than five weeks ago. All-America guard Chelsea Gray suffered a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 17 against Wake Forest.
Gray was Duke's third-leading scorer, led the team in assists and steals, and was a sneaky-effective rebounder. Freshman Alexis Jones has filled in ably, averaging 15.6 points per game since the injury and was named ACC tournament MVP.
"If a player goes down, you need some time to recuperate and rebuild and figure out different combinations," Duke guard Tricia Liston said. "I don't think there's ever a good time for it to happen, but when it happened it was useful for us, in terms of rebuilding and coming back for a new season."
The Blue Devils obviously have a handful of quality players, among them center Elizabeth Williams from Virginia Beach. The 6-foot-3 sophomore averages 15.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, has 91 blocks and was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
Today's game matches two of the nation's better defensive teams. Hampton leads the country in scoring defense (47.2 ppg) and is second in field-goal-percentage defense (.316) and third in 3-point defense (.238).
Duke allows 53.1 points per game, and opponents shoot 33.7 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range. On the flip side, the Blue Devils also have three players shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range.
McCallie said that where teams are seeded is irrelevant in this group. She pointed out that Hampton defeated a No. 6 seed (LSU), lost by one point to a 10-seed (DePaul), and went 1-1 versus ACC teams.
"Nothing that happens here this weekend will make me think we're a 15-seed, but we can't cry over it," Six said. "We've turned our focus to Duke. That's the opponent in front of us, that's my job.
"The great thing about this country is we can agree to disagree. You can have your opinion. I don't think that, but that's how we were perceived, and we were thankful for the opportunity. We're certainly going to have a big challenge ahead of us, but a challenge we're ready for."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun