At Duke, guard Alana Beard may be only a sophomore, but she has the confidence of a senior. When asked which opponents worry her, she doesn't hesitate: "I'm not really scared of anything." Such talk could be dismissed as youthful hubris if Beard's game weren't frighteningly good. Last season she averaged 17.0 points, 3.8 assists and 3.5 steals while leading the Blue Devils to a 30-4 record and the Sweet 16, where they lost to Southwest Missouri State, another team with a fearless guard, Jackie Stiles. With the departure of last season's ACC player of the year, Georgia Schweitzer, Beard will be asked to do even more. "Her natural position is the wing, but I'll start her at the point and play her some in the post, too," says Goestenkors. Junior guard Sheana Mosch and sophomore forward Iciss Tillis will provide help, as will sophomore guard Rometra Craig, the daughter of former San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig.
Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly has an intricate game plan. It's called, in his words, "Get the ball to Angie as much as possible." The triangle offense it's not, but if the Cyclones' 27-6 record last season is any indication, the strategy is nearly as effective. Angie Welle, the 6'4" center, averaged 18.3 points and 10.0 rebounds in 2000-01 while making 65-5% of her shots. When the opposition collapses on her, she'll kick it out to Iowa State's zone-busting guards, led by junior Lindsey Wilson, who knocked down 42.0% of her treys, and senior Tracy Gahan, who shot 45.6% from behind the are last season and is ready for a breakout campaign. "I think Tracy could be one of the best players in the country," says Fennelly. "Now she only needs to go out and prove it."
Last season North Carolina State lost both starting point guard Terah James and starting center Kaayla Chones (daughter of former NBA center Jim Chones) to injuries but still reached the Sweet 16 behind the play of dynamic forward Carisse Moody, now a junior. This year, with James and Chones back for their sophomore seasons, the Wolf-pack will sneak up on teams. "People outside the ACC don't understand how good they're going to be," warns Goestenkors. "They've got those two starters back, and they're hosting a regional [in the NCAA tournament]."
There was a time, from the late 1980s to the mid-'90s, when Stanford was mentioned in the same breath with Tennessee. After a few seasons below the national radar, the Cardinal is back, and this time coach Tara VanDerveer shouldn't have to play sophomore power forward Nicole Powell at the point, as she did in last season's tournament after injuries felled her starting backcourt. With a healthy roster that includes sharpshooting senior forward Lindsey Yamasaki, who won a gold medal with the U.S. team at the World University Games in Beijing this summer, and the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the country, Stanford should not only repeat as Pac-10 champ but also prove that its season motto—"It's no secret"—applies to its talent.
It's even less of a secret that, as redundant as it sounds, Connecticut should win its third national championship. Not that Auriemma cares whether people are sick of seeing his team in the title game. "I'm not going to apologize for having a lot of good players," he says. "You can't mandate parity, and until it happens, there will always be a gap between one level of schools and the next."
Left unspoken is how sweet it is to be on the top side of that divide.