Taurasi is country's best

Sometimes, there is no second term.

That's the case at ESPN.com this season. For now, at least.

Alana Beard was named ESPN.com's preseason player of the year this time in 2002, and followed it up with ESPN.com's national player of the year last spring. The Duke senior is the best defender in the nation, and might just have the best pure basketball skills of any player in the country.

But nobody passes, shoots or comes up big in big games like Diana Taurasi. And that's why the Connecticut senior -- who has helped lead the Huskies to two consecutive national championships -- is our 2003-04 preseason player of the year.

"There might be one or two players out there who have more basketball ability," ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman said. "But Diana has a confidence, a swagger to her that pro players envy, and a will to lift the players around her and make them better. Her teammates really feed off that confidence.

"You don't often see pro players this confident, but Taurasi has that gift. She's never fazed, whether its hitting the shot that decides a national championship in front of 30,000 people or carrying a team that lost four first-round draft picks."

Last season, Taurasi won the Wade Trophy, was named the Naismith national player of the year and voted to the 10-member Kodak All-American. She helped UConn win its second straight NCAA title and run up an NCAA Division I women's record 70 consecutive wins.

At the Final Four, she scored 54 points -- the fourth-highest total in history and best performance since 1997. She was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player after leading the Huskies to their third championship in four years. UConn also became the first team to win the national championship without a senior on its roster.

Taurasi averaged 26.2 points in the NCAA Tournament, including career-high 35 in second round against TCU and 28 in the final. She enters her senior season 590 points short of tying all-time UConn scoring record.

And all the while, she played through chronic ankle and back pain.

If all the stats and awards don't impress you, her passing skills and shot will. When she attempts a shot, it's smooth and methodical and lightning-quick -- she can get a shot off with a millisecond of a look at the basket. And in big games, those shots always seem to fall. Just ask Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who is 1-5 in her last six matchups with UConn since Taurasi entered the picture. Taurasi, in fact, averages 23 points against the Lady Vols, and has never scored less than 12 points against Summitt's crew.

And her best assets -- her energy, confidence and leadership -- are the things that never show up in the box score.

As ESPN.com columnist Mechelle Voepel put it, "Taurasi can do everything on the court and brings everybody else along with her."

UConn will try to match Tennessee by winning three straight titles (1996-98) and become the first team to reach five consecutive Final Fours.

"If we win another national championship this year," UConn coach Geno Auriemma has said, "Diana Taurasi is arguably the greatest college basketball player of all time.''

For now, according to ESPN.com, she's the best in the country.

ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman, ESPN.com columnist Mechelle Voepel and Melanie Jackson, who coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage, contributed to the selection process.