Time for Currie to come up big

Updated: March 13, 2006, 11:52 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Duke can win the NCAA title if: Monique Currie exorcises the ghost of Alana Beard

Alana Beard's timing was never quite right under the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament.

The all-time leading women's scorer in Duke history, Beard put together a magnificent college career. And she has had her moments in the clutch on the basketball court, scoring 29 in a Final Four loss against Tennessee in 2003 and putting the Washington Mystics on her back as a rookie to lead a franchise in disarray after Chamique Holdsclaw's unexpected departure all the way to the playoffs.

Taking a closer look at the favorites to win the 2006 NCAA Tournament, ESPN.com's Graham Hays identifies the biggest X factors facing each team:

• UConn's fate rests in Houston's hands
There might not be a more gifted player with the ball in her hands than Charde Houston. But can she break loose in the Big Dance?

• Time for Currie to come up big for Duke
Duke personifies the team concept. But Monique Currie must be able to put her teammates on her back when needed.

• Tiger duo could be best in bracket
Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles will determine how far LSU advances. But if they come up big, it's a 1-2 punch that could knock out the field.

• Terps must limit turnovers
The Terps are good enough to beat any team in the country -- as long as their guards take care of the ball.

• Larkins must be Robin to Latta's Batman
When (and if) star Ivory Latta should falter this NCAA Tournament, Erlana Larkins must be the one to step up for UNC.

• Packer can't let OSU foes pack in paint
Marscilla Packer must keep hitting shots from outside to open up the paint for OSU and Jessica Davenport.

• OU's role players can't disappear
Courtney Paris will come up big. But for OU to win, it needs every part firing on all cylinders to get it done against top competition.

• Two sides to Rutgers' aggression
Rutgers could go far on its relentless and downright annoying defense -- as long as opponents don't match or find a way to exploit that aggressiveness.

• Will fatigue be a factor for Tennessee?
Tennessee's success rests solely on its starters, who are more familiar with each other than Buddhist monks in monasteries.

But from Beard's freshman season battling Jackie Stiles and Southwest Missouri State to her senior season and a poor shooting night against Lindsay Whalen and Minnesota, there always seemed to be someone else taking the starring role in the biggest games in March.

Take another look at that box score from 2004 and you'll find it was Monique Currie keeping the Blue Devils in the game against the Gophers, much as Beard had done in a supporting role against Stiles, putting up 19 points and getting to the free-throw line 12 times. And now two years later, with Duke still looking for the national title that will validate its place in the upper echelon of college programs, it's Currie staring down one final run in March.

Currie is not Duke's team this season, but Duke is undeniably Currie's team. That she leads the team only in points is evidence of a supporting cast as good as any in Gail Goestenkors' tenure. Assists leader Lindsey Harding has completely changed the face of the Blue Devils, adding quickness and steady leadership at the point. Rebound leader Mistie Williams is a consistent post presence, joining with block leader Alison Bales to form an imposing front line with offensive touch. And 3-point leader Abby Waner has settled in after an up-and-down start as a freshman, looking every bit the part of a future star. Chante Black, Wanisha Smith and Jessica Foley provide outstanding depth, something Duke hasn't always had in March.

And it's a team that comes together to play some of the most precise and suffocating defense in the country, limiting opponents to 36 percent shooting and forcing more than 20 turnovers a game.

It's a team that seems to define that word; a perfect blend of the right parts in the right places. And if that seems overly effusive, a 26-3 record despite the toughest ACC schedule (facing Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia Tech twice) is proof that it looks pretty good on the court, as well.

But in those moments when Duke isn't right, it often seems like the Blue Devils are running a passing drill, rapidly moving the ball around the court in hopes the next person will magically create an open shot. That's where Currie -- who with five more assists will become the first ACC player to notch more than 2,000 points, 800 rebounds, 400 assists and 200 steals over a career -- comes in. Because while the Blue Devils have penetrators in Harding and Smith and shooters in Waner and Foley, they have just one pure scorer in Currie. It's why she has more free throw attempts than Seimone Augustus, hits 3-pointers at the same clip as Ivory Latta and has fewer turnovers than Candice Wiggins.

So whenever the moment comes in the NCAA Tournament, whether against a heavyweight like their ACC rivals or another upstart like Kim Smith of Utah or Noelle Quinn of UCLA, Currie must prove up to the task of disrupting the symmetry of the college game's ideal team and putting her teammates on her back for a game.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.