Duke Blue Devils
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REGION: Mideast SEED: 1
COACH: Gail Goestenkors CONFERENCE: ACC
Road to the Final Four ...................................................................................
Nobody in the country is playing better basketball than Alana Beard right now. And on paper, Duke has all the ingredients to win it all, from a solid starting five to a deep bench. The Blue Devils also have a talented point guard, and were probably just one Monique Currie away of an NCAA title last year. They are playing really well together. Now comes the mental part, and after two straight trips to the Final Four, the Blue Devils must keep their emotions in check. Forget that this is Beard's last chance. Forget how close you've come in the past. The Dukies must chip away at their goal one game at a time and not worry about what they haven't done. They cannot get too far ahead of themselves.
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Diana Taurasi's biggest competition for national player of the year honors, Beard has put in a super senior season, and somewhat superior numbers: 20.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.8 apg, 50.8 percent accuracy from the field. Beard, often touted as the nation's best defender, also averages 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks. But she's so good at every aspect of the game -- and so competitive -- that you'd want the ball in her hands for that last-second, game-winning attempt, too. Beard's biggest downfall, however, might be how badly she wants to bring Duke to that next level. So far, with her leading the way, Duke has spent more time at No. 1 and won more big games than ever before. But despite two trips to the Final Four, the Blue Devils have yet to appear in the NCAA title game -- or win it all. And don't think Beard isn't feeling that pressure.
ANALYSIS BY ESPN'S STACEY DALES-SCHUMAN
The time has come for Alana Beard, Iciss Tillis and Vicki Krapohl. Having traveled to two consecutive Final Fours, this group of seniors is up and ready for the final challenge: winning a national title.
The big difference in Duke this season is the Blue Devils' enhanced play -- both scoring and rebounding -- in the paint. Coach Gail Goestenkors has clearly made scoring around the hoop a dominant focus, which is necessary to win a national championship.
Alana Beard, ESPN.com's Player of the Year, has put in another typical -- and all the while impressive -- season. While she has improved her shooting and strength, Beard's vocal leadership has changed the most. Though she has a strong supporting cast, Beard has decided to step onto the stage, and she knows and understands that she's the lead act who everyone else must adhere to. Beard's leadership has become more direct, more determined and more confident. Indeed, this versatile sensation is on a mission.
Sophomore small forward Monique Currie has been a huge plus for Duke. After returning from last season's ACL rip, she has reinvented a level of toughness that the team was previously missing.
One of the more critical keys to how Duke performs, however, lies on the shoulders of starting center Mistie Bass. Quite simply, when Bass brings energy, offensive putbacks and traditional three-point opportunities to the mix, Duke prevails.
Iciss Tillis is yet another key to Duke's chances for success. Although Tillis started the season on a slow scoring note, she is clearly back on track. Commendable is the fact that although she faced some shooting woes, she was able to compensate for them by rebounding more and playing a blustery defense that flustered opponents. She must carry over these elements to postseason play.
Also important are guards Krapohl and sophomore Lindsey Harding. While Krapohl is the quiet, constant shooter off the bench, Harding is the cannon for Duke's fast break. If you want to see how one executes a "speed dribble," look no further than Lindsey Harding -- her velocity and quickness are impressive on the attack.
If Duke can stay healthy and get decent minutes out of super freshman Brittany Hunter, who has been hampered with an ailing knee injury, and towering freshman Alison Bales, who is finally starting to understand Division I basketball, the Blue Devils have the balance required to wear down opponents in tournament play and contend for the precious trophy.