Talent will carry Tennessee past Duke
So there I was, sitting at home watching ESPN2's women's basketball coverage a couple weeks back.
And there was my peer, analyst Stacey Dales-Schuman, proclaiming that Duke, not Tennessee, should be the nation's No. 1-ranked team. Both teams were (and remain) unbeaten and loaded with talent. But Duke's superior depth and experience, Dales-Schuman asserted, gave the Blue Devils the edge over the talent-laden but much younger Lady Vols.
Like myself, Dales-Schuman has tremendous respect for both programs and their coaches, Pat Summitt of Tennessee and Gail Goestenkors of Duke.
But when it comes to the talent vs. experience debate, I always prefer to turn to coaching legend John Wooden. When asked long ago whether he favored one or the other, Wooden replied, "Talent will always gain experience. So I would play talent first."
And that is why Tennessee will win Monday's showdown in Durham, N.C., when No. 2 Duke hosts the top-ranked Lady Vols (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET).
That's not to say Duke isn't talented. All 12 players on the Blue Devils' roster average at least 10.2 minutes. Monique Currie, a fifth-year senior and one of four upperclassmen starters, could be the best player in the nation. And with Mistie Williams anchoring the paint and Lindsey Harding orchestrating the backcourt, the Blue Devils have looked extremely tough to beat this season. Seven players average at least 7.7 points, with four starters in double figures.
But Tennessee, with six underclassmen on its 10-player roster, has the talent to keep up. Candace Parker has lived up to every expectation, and her composure, talent and unselfishness give the Lady Vols so much versatility. Plus, she's getting better and better every day at learning how to handle the double teams coming at her every game.
Tennessee is also much more battle-tested. Summitt always puts together the best schedule in the nation, and this season is no exception. The Lady Vols have played -- and beaten -- eight ranked teams this season, winning on the road against Michigan State, at Stanford and at Notre Dame. Though Duke easily dominated No. 6 Maryland two weeks ago and is playing a grueling 10 games this month, the Blue Devils have had nearly as tough a schedule to date.
Certainly, playing at Cameroon Indoor Stadium will be yet another test for the young Lady Vols. And true to Tennessee tradition, defense might be the biggest X-factor.
Specifically, Tennessee must be more alert on defense than it was against Connecticut. In their Jan. 7 matchup, the Lady Vols had hoped to limit the 3-point looks of UConn's Ann Strother. Instead, Strother was able to attempt 15 treys. Obviously, judging from Strother's 5-of-15 performance, some shots were better contested than others, but if the goal was to limit her looks, Tennessee should have done better.
Knowing where the opponent's top shooter is every time she's on the court is something the Lady Vols have focused on every day in practice since, and expect Tennessee to key on Currie from the opening tip.
Shot selection -- quality over quantity -- is also an X-factor. Tennessee must go inside and out and establish the high-percentage game. Conversely, senior Shanna Zolman must knock down her shots. Her 1-of-7 performance from downtown against UConn almost was costly. Sidney Spencer, who nailed all five of her 3-pointers against the Huskies, must also continue to step up.
Yes, Duke has more depth, but let's face it: You can only play five players at a time. And Tennessee's top seven or eight players are about as good as it gets. Both teams are well-conditioned and will stick with their core players unless there's a lot of foul trouble.
Expect the score to be in the 80s, which would benefit the Lady Vols. But regardless of who wins -- and I think Tennessee will -- this is the sort of game that elevates women's basketball. A Duke win would likely elevate the Blue Devils to the No. 1 spot in both Top 25 polls. But a Tennessee victory will only continue to raise the bar for the rest of the country, with March Madness less than two months away.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.