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Monday, January 4, 2010
UConn the overwhelming favorite

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

There might be no guarantees in life, but in looking at the Big East, the burden of proof rests with those projecting an outcome other than a Connecticut title.

Skylar Diggins
Freshman Skylar Diggins is averaging a team-best 12.9 points for Notre Dame, and also adds 4.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists.

There will be tests -- beginning in earnest with Notre Dame's visit Jan. 16 -- and the Huskies might even lose one along the way. But it's their league to win or lose.

Race for second

The top nine teams in the Big East standings entered conference play with a combined nine losses, but that's as much a testament to audaciously weak scheduling as impressive performances.

Notre Dame could perhaps have done more on the former count, but wins against the likes of Michigan State, Oklahoma and Vanderbilt offered proof of its quality. Skylar Diggins has been as good as advertised, and the 3-point shooting that both she and a healthy Brittany Mallory add changes the look of a team that already had balance in just about every other area.

Aside from the two Connecticut games, keep an eye on how the team handles two games in three days at Syracuse and Rutgers at the end of January.

Question to answer

How many teams will be in the pack chasing Connecticut? All 16 teams woke up on New Year's Day with winning records. But are we headed for a glut of teams with seven, eight or nine wins in conference play, or will an upper crust separate itself and join Connecticut and, presumably, Notre Dame? The top four teams earn byes through the first two rounds of the conference tournament (the next four earn a bye through the first round), but NCAA tournament seeding will be equally important.

Team to watch

West Virginia had some results of note early -- beating Marist in the Preseason WNIT, Duquesne on the road and Iowa on a neutral court -- but it spent December racking up wins and proving little against inferior competition. So a win at St. John's to open conference play was a significant statement of intent by a team that won just once on the road in Big East play a season ago.

Brittany Ray
Rutgers' Brittany Ray is worth watching (team-high 17.3 ppg) and reading (14 blog entries).

Undermanned then, the Mountaineers are now anything but. Freshman Asya Bussie outplayed St. John's Da'Shena Stevens in the conference opener and is excelling everywhere but the free throw line. Former combo guard Sarah Miles has transitioned to point remarkably well. And now West Virginia has six of its next eight conference games in Morgantown.

Player to watch

Actually, Brittany Ray is worth both watching and reading, thanks to an entertaining blog. On the court, she's not only among the league's leading scorers entering conference play; she did her work against a schedule loaded with NCAA tournament teams. Maybe she wasn't expected to be the next great cornerstone when she arrived in Piscataway -- and wouldn't have filled that role this season if not for Epiphanny Prince's unexpected departure. But beyond even Ray's scoring on a team that desperately needs it, her steady, positive presence ranks her as one of the single most valuable players in the Big East.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.