A No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup is not as rare in women's basketball as it is in the men's game.
But that doesn't make tonight's nationally televised game (4:30 PST, ESPN2) at Durham, N.C., between No. 1 Tennessee (18-0) and No. 2 Duke (18-0) any less compelling. At this point in the season these are the two best teams in the country. And although too often these games fail to live up to the hype, this one appears worthy of the attention at sold-out Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"We're going against a program that we have tremendous respect for and that beat us on our home floor a year ago," said Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, who recorded her 900th victory Thursday. "I consider [Coach] Gail [Goestenkors] a friend, and admire the job she has done at Duke.
"This Duke team ... they're impressive; they're balanced. They shoot the ball well from the field and the line. I think their bench is probably a little more productive at this point in time than ours has been. We've been very inconsistent there. That's where we have to be better in terms of matching their depth in being able to put up numbers off the bench."
Goestenkors, who is 3-4 against Tennessee, is happy to have her program at a point where it can measure up to the Lady Vols'.
"Early on, I wouldn't have called it a rivalry because they were so much better than we were," she said. "But now I think we have such great respect for one another as coaches and what we've done with our programs. I think the players on both teams really look forward to playing against one another. We recruit a lot of the same players, so there's a great familiarity with the program, so I certainly hope this rivalry continues. I'm sure it will continue to grow."
The Lady Vols have already vanquished such ranked opponents as Connecticut, Michigan State, Maryland, Stanford and Georgia. Maryland gave Tennessee its closest game, losing 80-75. Tennessee has defeated everyone else by an average of 24 points.
The Lady Vols have their usual sturdy backcourt in guards Shanna Zolman and Alexis Hornbuckle and an endless supply of rebound-hungry forwards. And they have the Next Great Thing in redshirt freshman Candace Parker, who plays as if she could average more than 14.9 points and 8.4 rebounds if they needed it.
"I think expectations are very high for Candace," Summitt said. "I think people are talking about how she can rebound and start our break.... There are a lot of different dimensions to her game, not only to make shots and block shots, but also to get other people shots. For a lot of people who haven't watched women's basketball, to be 6-4 and do some of the things that she does is something that the game has not seen much of."
Duke has been drilling foes by an average of 38.3 points. Its roster includes an expected WNBA first-round pick in senior guard Monique Currie (15.4 points, 5.6 rebounds) and bruising post players Mistie Williams and Alison Bales. But the key to the Blue Devils' hopes tonight -- and perhaps in the NCAA tournament -- is point guard Lindsey Harding, who averages 11.2 points and 4.2 assists.
"Lindsey just changes the game for us," Goestenkors said. "She just pushes the wall so well and knows when to push and knows when to pull back and make us run our sets. Then on the defensive end, she's our stopper. We can put her on anybody on the perimeter and we can feel comfortable that if I say don't let her touch the ball, she's going to do that."
Still, Duke's schedule, although it includes Texas, Maryland, and Boston College, doesn't quite match the heft of the Lady Vols' schedule. That may be Tennessee's edge, according to one observer.
"Year in and year out Tennessee is predictable," Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer said. "They will rebound, work really hard on the defensive end and pound the ball inside. They play by far the best schedule in the country, so they are not intimidated wherever they go. That is a challenge in itself. It gets them ready for anything."
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Duke upset Tennessee in their second meeting, in 1999, ending a run of three consecutive NCAA titles for the Lady Vols. The teams have met six other times (date, AP ranking, result and location):
DEC. 2, 2004: No. 10 Duke 59, No. 4 Tennessee 57, at Knoxville, Tenn.
* JAN. 24, 2004: No. 2 Tennessee 72, No. 1 Duke 69, at Durham, N.C.
* APRIL 6, 2003: No. 2 Tennessee 66, No. 9 Duke 56, at Atlanta. (Final Four).
* NOV. 24, 2002: No. 1 Duke 76, No. 2 Tennessee 55, at Raleigh, N.C. (Jimmy V Classic).
* DEC. 27, 2001: No. 2 Tennessee 89, No. 9 Duke 68, at Atlanta. (ACC/SEC Shootout).
* MARCH 22, 1999: No. 10 Duke 69, No. 2 Tennessee 63, at Greensboro, N.C. (East Regional final).
* DEC. 6, 1998: No. 3 Tennessee 74, No. 16 Duke 60, at Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Honda Elite 4).