The center of the women's basketball universe settled in New Orleans for four days early last month, when the NCAA women's Final Four came to town, and Stacey Dales-Schuman was caught right in the middle.

She couldn't walk down Bourbon Street without someone stopping her to comment on how she does her job -- not her job as a Washington Mystics forward, but her role as an ESPN college basketball analyst.

The television analyst wears smart suits, keeps her blond hair loose, and wears heavy make-up ("I like to call it 'the mask,' " Dales-Schuman said). The basketball player wears a jersey and shorts, pulls back her hair into a bun or ponytail, and is lipstick-free.

Dales-Schuman is "very good on television -- and she's a very good player for me, too," Mystics Coach Michael Adams said. "She looks totally different playing than when she's in the studio."

It was only two years ago that Dales-Schuman -- then known as Stacey Dales -- was just a 6-foot all-American college basketball player who led her team, the Oklahoma Sooners, to the Final Four in San Antonio.

Her performance on the court that season helped her become the third overall pick of the 2002 WNBA draft, and she played in the WNBA All-Star Game later that year as a rookie. Last season, Dales-Schuman started 31 games and led the Mystics, who will open their season on Saturday at home against Charlotte, in assists (114) and three-pointers made (57). She averaged 10 points per game, third best on the team.

But it was a chance performance away from the court during her senior year that led to her second career. At the annual NCAA salute dinner at the Final Four in San Antonio, Dales-Schuman addressed the crowd.

Tina Thornton, a coordinating producer at ESPN, was in the audience and was impressed with Dales-Schuman and her wit. A few months later, the network, which was expanding its coverage of the women's basketball tournament, invited her to audition for an on-air position.

Dales-Schuman, 24, majored in communications at Oklahoma, but had no on-camera experience when she auditioned alongside of ESPN anchor Rece Davis. It didn't matter. She was a natural.

"I was amazed," Davis said. "She has a unique quality. You can learn the mechanics of being on TV, but you can't learn presence."

So Dales-Schuman was put into the studio alongside Davis and Nell Fortner, who recently left ESPN to become head coach at Auburn. Over the past two seasons, an entertaining rapport developed between Davis, Fortner and Dales-Schuman. Davis would occasionally consult a Dales-Schuman bobble-head doll that he kept on the set.

The interaction among the three personalities -- the playful jabs, the contrasting opinions -- worked. ESPN's ratings for the women's tournament this year were the highest in the game's history.

"A lot of people discovered women's basketball this year," Thornton said. "I think they helped that."

Dales-Schuman says the extra work has led to razzing. "I get so much slack from my teammates. Chamique [Holdsclaw] teases me throughout the entire college season," she said. "She teases me about my make-up, about what I'm wearing. Why am I wearing pink shirts? Why did they put so much blush on my cheeks?"

Appearances aside, Dales-Schuman approaches her job as a studio analyst the same way she does her job as a basketball player: She practices, she studies, she asks questions, she seeks out advice. Preparation is paramount.

When ESPN's women's college basketball team met shortly before the tournament bracket was unveiled this year, Dales-Schuman arrived with a capsule summary of every team that could possibly make it into the field.

"She knew something about everybody in the tournament," Davis said. "She's very prepared, and that's one thing I think her education, her communication background at Oklahoma, prepared her for. More times than not, when you get athletes who are just off of their playing careers, they're surprised by the amount of preparation that's involved. They tell you, 'Wow, I didn't know you actually worked.' "

But it can be tricky, trying to balance the roles of analyst and player. This past winter, Dales-Schuman often had to analyze the Duke Blue Devils and their all-American guard, Alana Beard, knowing that she would be either playing with or against Beard in the very near future.

She has studied so many college basketball games, she knows the strengths and tendencies of so many of the players. But her Mystics teammates won't let her forget the times she criticizes or picks against their schools.

"We tease her about it," Beard said. "I understand it's the media, and she's got to do what she's got to do. . . . I'm not the type to indulge in media-type stuff; it's not a big deal. Maybe she did pick U-Conn. over Duke. She's got to choose."

"Any time you're in that situation, you're going to strike a nerve with people," Dales-Schuman said. "I'm never, ever, ever trying to disappoint anybody by not picking their team. I'm just doing my job. . . . It was difficult [initially] because my personality is such that I don't want to perturb anybody. But that's also the nature of this business, and something that I really had to learn to deal with. I'm just trying to do justice to women's basketball. I'm trying to portray women's basketball in the most enthusiastic, positive way I can."

Dales-Schuman's increased visibility and fame hasn't directly translated into endorsement opportunities yet, according to her agent, Jeanne McNulty-King. But that could change. McNulty-King said that Dales-Schuman has received other broadcasting offers, including some that do not involve basketball.

"Endorsements are so hard to come by for women athletes," McNulty-King said. "But now people know who she is, even if they're not a WNBA fan."

In New Orleans in early April, it seemed as if everyone knew Dales-Schuman.

Some people wanted to have their pictures taken with her. Some wanted to tell her how much they enjoy her work. And others simply wanted to know how on earth she could've said what she did about U-Conn.

(Earlier in the tournament, Dales-Schuman and Fortner both picked Penn State to beat U-Conn. in the East Region final. When the pick proved wrong, Dales-Schuman picked up the bobblehead doll -- a miniature version of herself, sporting a Mystics uniform -- placed it on her shoulder, and then predicted that U-Conn. would win the national title this year, and every year after that.)

Being on television "hasn't changed my life any," Dales-Schuman said. "It just happens to be what I'm doing right now. . . . Right now, I'm just a basketball player. I'm thinking nothing about television. It doesn't cross my mind. I just hope people can separate that, and realize that it's the season now, and I want this to be a successful season. But it's pretty neat to do it all."

Stacey Dales-Schuman seeks to "portray women's basketball in the most enthusiastic, positive way I can." ESPN anchor Rece Davis calls Stacey Dales-Schuman, above, "a natural. . . . You can learn the mechanics of being on TV, but you can't learn presence."