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|Bria Hartley, Geno Auriemma and Caroline Doty have UConn pointed toward the top of the Big East.|
Geno Auriemma might be talking about lowering the rims. But the expectations for his Connecticut Huskies are as high as ever entering the 2012-13 season.
That, of course, is nothing new for a team that has seven national championships, 19 regular-season titles and 18 Big East tournament crowns. And nothing at all new for a team that simply reloads year after year.
No one really knew what to expect last season with Maya Moore having moved on to the WNBA. But we soon had an answer. UConn lost just three games in the Big East and five games on the season, reaching its fifth consecutive Final Four (and 13th overall).
Auriemma said all along last season that his Huskies weren't good enough to reach the Final Four. He's singing a different tune now, telling The Associated Press that his team is "really, really, really good" and capable of winning another title.
While Notre Dame has the reigning Big East player of the year in Skylar Diggins, the Huskies have a loaded lineup. Guard Bria Hartley was a WBCA/State Farm All-American last season, and both she and 2012 Big East freshman of the year Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis were named honorable mention AP preseason All-Americans. The duo joined center Stefanie Dolson on the All-Big East preseason first team, while 6-foot-4 rookie forward Breanna Stewart was tabbed preseason Big East freshman of the year.
Getting more attention than an undecided voter in Ohio, all eyes are watching how quickly Stewart adjusts to the college level. Still, Hartley's health is the biggest question facing the Huskies. The junior guard suffered a sprained left ankle this summer while participating for USA Basketball in FIBA's 3x3 World Championship in Greece. She is out indefinitely, which means guard play from Kelly Faris (eight assists in Friday's exhibition win), freshman Moriah Jefferson and sophomore Brianna Banks are even bigger keys for now.
And speaking of the present, this Big East season will give fans one more chance -- or four? -- to savor what has become the best rivalry in women's basketball the past couple of years. UConn and Notre Dame met four times in each of the past two seasons, both of which ended with the Irish knocking off the Huskies in the national semifinals. In fact, Notre Dame's overtime win over UConn in the Final Four this past April was one of the most thrilling games in women's college basketball history. But the Irish are moving to the ACC next season in basketball, and though fans hope the two teams will meet in the nonconference schedule, the league rivalry will come to a close. Their first meeting is Jan. 5 in Storrs, although UConn has two big nonconference matchups in the first week of December, hosting Maryland and Penn State in a three-day stretch.
1. Connecticut (33-5): Breanna Stewart's transition to college? Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis' sophomore effort and transition to the starting lineup? Bria Hartley's ankle injury? While we're eagerly waiting to see how all of them play out, it's worth paying equal attention to what Stefanie Dolson does. The 6-foot-5 center (10.4 ppg, team-high 6.0 rpg in 2011-12) played her best basketball of the season in the NCAA tournament. Will she pick up where she left off?
2. Notre Dame (35-4): The Irish lost a lot of leadership, and the common thought is that as Skylar Diggins goes, so goes Notre Dame. That's true -- to a point. As Graham Hays will explain further on Monday, 6-3 junior forward Natalie Achonwa's development in the frontcourt might be the key if the Irish are going to overcome the departures of Devereaux Peters, Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory and their combined 33 points and 16 rebounds a game last season. Mark your calendars for Dec. 5, when the nation's top two point guards -- Diggins and Baylor's Odyssey Sims -- clash in South Bend in a rematch of last season's national championship game. Keep an eye on 5-10 freshman guard Jewell Loyd, who is expected to make an immediate impact.
3. Louisville (23-10): Not only is Shoni Schimmel back after an All-Big East first-team effort last season, but the Cardinals also return Monique Reid and Tia Gibbs from injuries. Reid, a 6-1 senior forward, was leading Louisville in scoring in 2011-12 when she suffered a season-ending knee injury in the team's Big East opener. Gibbs, a top-notch defender sidelined by a shoulder injury in last season's season opener, started every game in 2010-11. Schimmel, Gibbs and Reid could form a triple threat that might even help Louisville leapfrog Notre Dame at some point in the standings.
4. St. John's (24-10): Talk about your banner year. Not only did the Red Storm reach their first Sweet 16, they made headlines weeks earlier by beating UConn in Storrs on senior night to snap the Huskies' 99-game home-court winning streak. Though Kim Barnes Arico is gone (she's now head coach at Michigan), Joe Tartamella, an assistant with the program for nine years who has taken over the Red Storm, says it has been a "seamless transition." Part of that has to be due to St. John's wealth of experience; four starters and 79 percent of its scoring return. Senior guards Shenneika Smith, Nadirah McKenith and Eugeneia McPherson helped harass foes into nearly 18 turnovers a game last season. Sophomore forward Amber Thompson started 23 of 34 games as a rookie, but needs to play even bigger to help fill the void left by Da'Shena Stevens' graduation.
5. DePaul (23-11): The Blue Demons were so riddled by injuries last season that they earned the moniker "Magnificent Seven" -- seven players were the extent of the roster. Still, with 5-9 senior guard Anna Martin leading the way -- and the Big East in scoring at 19.1 ppg -- DePaul reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. With six of those seven players back, and a roster that now runs 13 deep, things are looking up. Senior forward Katherine Harry led the Big East with 9.6 rebounds last season and needs to continue to take some of the scoring burden off Martin.
6. Rutgers (22-10): For the past two seasons, the Scarlet Knights have brought in the third-best recruiting class in the nation. How well those freshmen and sophomores blend with senior standout Monique Oliver will determine how quickly C. Vivian Stringer becomes just the third women's coach to reach 900 victories (she is 15 wins away entering the season). Oliver, a 6-2 forward/center and preseason All-Big East pick, averaged 11.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks last season. Rutgers, which also gets Chelsey Lee back from a shoulder injury, was 12-3 at home in 2011-12.
7. Georgetown (23-9): Already the most decorated player in Hoyas history, Sugar Rodgers returns for her final season after averaging 18.5 ppg as a junior. The shooting guard is a natural scorer with big-play ability -- Rodgers exploded for 39 points against Dartmouth last season. But as the only returner averaging double-figure scoring, the AP honorable mention preseason All-American must improve on her 34 percent shooting from the field and 29 percent accuracy from downtown. Former assistant Keith Brown takes over as head coach; it's a fitting finish to Rodgers' college career since she was his first McDonald's All-American recruit on the Hilltop.
8. Syracuse (22-15): After four straight trips to the WNIT, Quentin Hillsman and the Orange have set their sights on reaching the NCAA tournament, bringing in the sixth-best recruiting class (including a pair of McDonald's All-Americans) and returning eight of the team's top nine scorers from a year ago. Senior center Kayla Alexander, who has a chance to cap her career as Syracuse's career leading scorer, leads the way. She was the best blocker in the Big East last season (2.6 per game), and also ranked 10th in scoring (14.8 ppg) and ninth in rebounding (7.5 rpg).
9. USF (19-16): The Bulls went 8-8 in league play but should be better this season with the return of Andrea Smith. The senior guard led South Florida in scoring as a junior (16.5 ppg), but a knee injury suffered late in 2010-11 kept her out all of last season. Smith should be back at full speed, which for the Bulls means an up-tempo pace. Look for Smith and junior 3-point threat Inga Orekhova -- the team's top returning scorer (13.0 ppg) last season -- to do most of their damage on the wing. Expect Smith's twin, Andrell, and Tiffany Conner to anchor the defense.
10. Villanova (19-15): Laura Sweeney is the name to know at Villanova. A second-team All-Big East pick a year ago as a junior, the forward returns after leading the Wildcats in scoring (14.4 ppg), rebounding (7.6 rpg), field goal percentage (50.4), steals (52) and blocks (39).
11. Marquette (14-17): Last season was a tough one for the Golden Eagles, who suffered their first losing campaign since 2000-01 and ended their streak of nine postseason appearances. Though all five starters return, Marquette remains young, with just one senior (Sarina Simmons) on the roster. Versatile junior Katherine Plouffe, a 6-3 forward, is the player to watch, leading the team in scoring (13.5 ppg) and rebounding (8.1 rpg) last season. Coach Terri Mitchell, who has had just two losing seasons at Marquette since taking over the team in 1996, scored one of the biggest offseason moves when she hired Tyler Summitt, son of former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, as an assistant. He is responsible for the development of the Golden Eagles' guards and helps out in recruiting.
12. Cincinnati (16-16): Don't be fooled by Cincinnati's low ranking. The Bearcats are coming off their most wins since 2005-06. That's not to say Cincinnati is going to put together another seven-game improvement over the previous year, but coach Jamelle Elliott could have the team poised to make a second straight postseason appearance (last spring, the Bearcats won their first postseason game in 10 years). Cincinnati returns three starters, including leading scorer Dayeesha Hollins (14.8 ppg, 3.5 apg). But the key this season might be having Jeanise Randolph healthy from the get-go. Missing the first 11 games of last season with an injury, she came on strong, hitting a team-best 57 percent from the field in only 23 minutes per game.
13. Pittsburgh (8-22): The Panthers went 0-16 in league play last season and haven't won a game since Dec. 31, 2011. So how will this season be any different? Brianna Kiesel has a year under her belt. Last year's unanimous All-Big East freshman team honoree led Pitt in scoring last season (13.6 ppg), notching seven games of at least 20 points, and already has been made a team captain. Watch for redshirt freshman and Nigerian national team member Loliya Briggs to make an impact.
14. Seton Hall (8-23): After just one Big East victory last season, third-year Pirates coach Anne Donovan has every reason to believe this will be a better year. While the team's top scorer and rebounder from last season have graduated, 3-point threats Terry Green and Brittany Morris return. Their veteran leadership might be the key to getting seven newcomers, including three junior-college transfers, to jell in Donovan's system. Junior forward Janee Johnson is worth keeping an eye on. A former Duke recruit, she sat out 2009-10 with a torn ACL, then played at Gulf Coast CC last season before transferring to Seton Hall.
15. Providence (13-17): It's a new season, and the Friars have a new coach. But with most of the returners lacking significant on-court experience, Susan Robinson Fruchtl takes over a team that could struggle to match last season's five Big East wins. Three of Providence's top five scorers, including the only two who averaged double figures, have graduated, as well as the team's top rebounder. On the plus side, the Friars have the luxury of playing in their newly renovated Alumni Hall/Mullaney Gym this season.
Anna Martin, 5-9, senior, G, DePaul: One of the best shooting guards in the nation, Martin ranked 25th in the country in scoring last season and has reached double figures in 70 of 103 career games. A 40 percent shooter from behind the arc last season, she has scored at least 30 points four times, including a career-high 36 points in February against Cincinnati. But can Martin make the most of DePaul's February meeting with UConn? She has been held scoreless just twice in her career, both at the hands of the Huskies.
Tia Gibbs, 5-9, junior G, Louisville: A lot of the attention is being heaped on Monique Reid, who also is returning to the Cardinals after missing most of last season with an injury. But Gibbs, like many athletes sidelined for an extensive period, said she is a better vocal leader for Louisville this season. The Cardinals are loaded with depth and talent, but getting the Cardinals to jell could be the key to Louisville's season. Gibbs, who is listed as a junior but is a fifth-year senior who started her career at Vanderbilt and turns 23 in January, also adds another defensive stalwart to the court; she led Louisville with 95 steals in 2010-11.
Morgan Tuck, 6-2, freshman, F, UConn: Don't overlook one of UConn's other two freshmen. The high school All-American from Illinois can take foes off the dribble and creates mismatch nightmares for opposing posts. Granted, it was a 77-point exhibition win, but Tuck tallied 15 points on 4-for-7 shooting (making 2 of 3 3-point attempts) in 25 minutes Friday. She also had two assists, three offensive rebounds (and five boards overall) and a steal.