- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Two straight trips to the Final Four. One Monique Currie away from winning it all.
That probably best describes Duke's season last year. Because I firmly believe that if Alana Beard had had Currie beside her, the Blue Devils might have been able to hoist that 2003 NCAA trophy. Instead, Currie missed the entire season after suffering a torn ACL in an exhibition game.
This year, however, with Currie back in the lineup and Beard playing better than ever before -- and better than anyone in the country -- Duke is playing awesome. The Blue Devils are healthy and hungry, boast the tournament's most experienced starting five and have every ingredient needed to go all the way.
A look at the Mideast's top seed:
1. What has impressed you most about Duke so far this season?
The Blue Devils can score, pouring on 82.3 points per game, which ranks third in the country behind DePaul (85.3) and Louisiana Tech (83.8). And while the ACC wasn't as tough this season as in past years, Duke, at one point this season, led the conference in 12 categories. That's unbelievable.
This team has plenty of firepower, and plenty of resilience, too. The Blue Devils' comeback to beat Connecticut in Hartford on Jan. 3 -- Duke trailed by as many as 20 points in the first half before outscoring UConn 18-3 in the final four minutes -- is proof of that.
2. What has surprised you most about Duke?
We all knew Beard was a tremendous player. But she has really taken her game to another level this season and is playing with a supreme confidence we haven't seen out of her. She played big in every big game and really separated herself from the rest of the national player of the year candidates.
Beard also worked to extend her range, and she has nailed nearly as many 3-pointers this season as in her first two seasons combined. In the past, that had been Beard's only weakness, but her 3-point shooting is almost 6 percentage points higher than last season, up to 33.7 percent. Over the last nine games, however, Beard is hitting 53.6 percent of her attempts from the field, with a 38.2 percent accuracy from downtown.
3. What are Duke's biggest strength and weakness?
After back-to-back Final Four appearances, Duke has the most experienced starting five in the tournament -- almost comparable to UConn in 2002. And after a great nonconference schedule that included Tennessee, UConn, Texas and Purdue, the Blue Devils are also battle-tested. They not only have the national player of the year but also a great supporting cast -- at least eight players deep -- of good shooters and smart leaders. Most important, they're healthy.
Currie really has been a difference-maker this season. She's big, strong and aggressive, gets on the boards and can pass the rock -- no wonder she's such a tough matchup for opponents. Then there's Iciss Tillis, who was a Kodak All-American last season. The 6-foot-5 forward will outrebound you, run the floor, post you up or take you away from the basket.
Duke doesn't really have a weakness. Though the Blue Devils have struggled with turnovers in the past, they've worked really hard to improve that and enter the tournament averaging 14.5 giveaways.
4. Who's the wild card for Duke that we might not have heard much about?
This is where Duke gets really scary for opponents, because there are a number of players who fit this label, although you've been hearing plenty about them all season long. While Beard (20.2 points), Currie (11.7) and Tillis (12.5) combine for 44.4 points per game -- about 54 percent of Duke's total offense -- five other players average at least 5.5 points.
Sophomore Lindsey Harding's (6.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.9 assists) leadership at point guard is clutch. Mistie Bass, the only other player in double-figures (10.4 points), has had a very good year. Though hampered with a knee injury, 6-3 freshman Brittany Hunter (16.2 minutes, 8.3 points, 5.0 rebounds) also has helped give Duke a bigger and better presence in the paint than in previous seasons.
And, of course, there's senior Vicki Krapohl. You can't measure heart and smarts, but she's too important to Duke to overlook. And watch out if she gets a hot hand. Of her 56 field goals this season, 52 are 3-pointers -- and she shoots 43 percent from downtown.
And you can't count out Australian sophomore Jessica Foley, either. She came up huge once earlier this season -- think game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer with Ann Strother in her face. She's very mature and won't hesitate if she's put in that position again.
5. What does Duke need to do to win the NCAA title?
Duke's guard play will be very important. The backcourt needs to take care of the ball, be consistent and make sure the offense is running at its best -- and finding Beard.
In the past, Duke's inside game has been the problem. To be honest, the Blue Devils haven't been able to be an inside-outside team since Michele VanGorp graduated. But Tillis, Bass and Hunter have all really committed themselves to establishing that inside presence.
That must continue to be the case. And Tillis must come to play. Though she tallied one double-double and averaged 12.2 points in last year's NCAA Tournament, Tillis struggled in the Elite Eight and Final Four, going a combined 7-for-24 from the field with two single-digit scoring performances (nine and seven).
In key situations, she has struggled to play up to her potential, and that only puts more pressure on her teammates. But Tillis has all the components -- and even reminds me a little bit of former UConn standout Swin Cash, who was the 2002 Final Four Most Outstanding Player -- to help carry the Blue Devils to the trophy.
To her credit, after struggling early in the season, Tillis has come on strong toward the end of the season and was named the ACC tournament MVP. She is yet another key to Duke's championship hopes, and now needs to suck it up and play like the star she has been at times throughout her career.
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.
19dBonnie D. Ford