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Thursday, November 7, 2013
Huskies heavy favorite in American

By Graham Hays
espnW.com

Stefanie Dolson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis
Stefanie Dolson and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis look to lead UConn to a ninth NCAA title.

Throw "American Conference women's basketball" into a Google search and the first result takes you to the America East.

So, yes, the conference that is home to the schools that played for the championship some months ago in New Orleans -- and the only conference named after a George Clooney movie -- has some work to do when it comes to brand recognition. Alright, maybe the Clooney thing was a coincidence.

It's difficult to see the blandly named American Athletic Conference as something other than leftovers of schools across the country gorging themselves on the conference realignment buffet. It makes no geographic sense, hence the generic name. It begins its existence with Louisville and Rutgers, two of its highest profile members in women's basketball, standing awkwardly by the door as they wait for their rides to new conferences next season.

It has no shared history, and in women's basketball, it doesn't have much individual history once you get past the team with eight championship trophies.

Connecticut owns an 85-17 all-time record in the NCAA tournament. Excluding Louisville and Rutgers -- the two teams just passing through -- the other seven teams in The American claim a combined 12-38 record in the big tournament.

Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley have each won more NCAA tournament games than the rest of the league's permanent members. Ever.

The conference certainly wasn't created with women's basketball in mind, but the hope, presumably, is that a team like Connecticut will act as a catalyst for improvement among other members. This can be true in practice -- North Carolina's dominance in women's soccer forced the rest of the ACC to strive to its level and made it arguably the most competitive conference in any college sport. Maybe that happened with basketball in the old Big East to some degree, but the evidence is less conclusive. Even if it does happen for programs like UCF, Houston, Memphis and others, it's going to take years.

And for all of that, The American has a decent chance to claim as its own half the field in the Final Four in Nashville, Tenn.

Which is more than the American East can say, at least.

Predicted order of finish

1. Connecticut (35-4 in 2012-13): The Huskies outscored Big East opponents by 29.9 points per game a season ago. The American is not as good a league. This will get ugly. While Breanna Stewart, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley are back, depth is the question mark for national aspirations. Still, Brianna Banks, Morgan Tuck, Moriah Jefferson, Kiah Stokes and the freshmen might finish no worse than second in the league on their own.

2. Louisville (29-9): All the pieces came together in memorable fashion for the Cardinals during the NCAA tournament. Was that more than a moment in time? Shoni Schimmel will be the headliner in her senior season, but Louisville's run came as much through Antonita Slaughter coming into her own and players like Sara Hammond, Bria Smith and Jude Schimmel making big plays. Healthy returns for redshirt seniors Asia Taylor and Tia Gibbs make this a deep team.

3. SMU (21-10): A proven scorer is gold, especially when it's a scorer who can get others involved and produces beyond her height on the boards. Hello, Keena Mays. The Kansas transfer and reigning Conference USA player of the year averaged 18.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and shot 40 percent from the 3-point line. Three other starters return. There isn't much size and rebounding could be an issue, but Brittney Hardy's return from a redshirt season could be a big plus.

4. South Florida (22-11): Sisters Andrea Smith and Andrell Smith wrapped up their college careers last season. That alone means the Bulls need to replace 43 percent of 2012-13's points. Inga Orekhova (12.7 points per game) is a good 3-point shooter who does a lot of other things in terms of ball distribution and creating turnovers, but she isn't a prototypical go-to scorer. That might not be Trimaine McCullough, but the freshman guard arrives with expectations.

5. Rutgers (16-14): All things considered, this isn't a bad season for a young team to spend in a conference that doesn't look as good from top to bottom as the Big Ten. Freshman Tyler Scaife is the latest big-time recruit to end up along the banks of the Raritan. And with Erica Wheeler and Monique Oliver no longer around, there should be shots for her. Someone hitting 3-pointers would also help. The Scarlet Knights return a total of 14 3-pointers from last season.

6. UCF (16-18): The Knights lose leading scorer Gevenia Carter but add redshirt junior Brittni Montgomery, who sat out last season after transferring from Virginia Tech. Montgomery isn't going to take more than 500 shots, as Carter did, but she could be a good post complement to Briahanna Jackson's backcourt scoring. A preseason all-conference pick in The American, Jackson needs to become more efficient (32 percent shooting, 123 turnovers), but she's talented.

7. Memphis (17-15): The Tigers arrive in the Big East after a fourth consecutive trip to the postseason under Melissa McFerrin. They arrive without Nicole Dickson, who led the team in scoring at better than 18 points per game a season ago, but sophomore Ariel Hearn, the team's assist leader and second-leading scorer overall last season, led Memphis in scoring in four of its final five games. The return of redshirt freshman Mooriah Rowser is also a boost.

8. Temple (14-18): A string of four consecutive postseason appearances under Tonya Cardoza -- three to the NCAA tournament and a fourth that should have been -- came to a thudding halt last season. If that is to be a one-year blip, the bounce back will begin in the backcourt. Raeska Brown and Tyonna Williams are the team's two leading returning scorers, while new arrival Shi-Heria Shipp averaged nearly double digits at George Washington a season ago.

9. Cincinnati (12-18): Cincinnati still has most of what it had a season ago. Make of that what you will. Seven players started double-digit games for the Bearcats and six of them return. Key among the returnees is Dayeesha Hollins, who took nearly twice as many shots as any teammate and averaged twice as many points as any other player. On the positive side, Cincinnati went 9-6 at home a season ago, its best home record under Jamelle Elliott.

10. Houston (13-17): Houston won't match last season's improvement in the win column. The Cougars went from 3-26 to 13-17 in their second season under Todd Buchanan. That's good. What's bad is Porsche Landry is no longer around, and she did a lot for this team a season ago. It's not a league that has an abundance of great post players, so senior Yasmeen Thompson could thrive after she averaged 8.6 points. 8.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in her first season.

Players to watch

Bria Hartley, senior, G, Connecticut: There isn't a better 39 percent shooter on the planet. Hartley's shooting percentage a season ago (39.1 percent overall, 29.7 percent from the 3-point line) were far out of sync with her first two seasons but indicative of a season that began with an ankle injury and continued up and down from there. Something closer to All-American (the country, not the conference) is possible this season.

Antonita Slaughter, senior, G, Louisville: Slaughter scored two points in Louisville's first-round win against Middle Tennessee State in the NCAA tournament, her fourth game in a row in single digits. In her next four games, wins against Purdue, Baylor, Tennessee and California, she averaged 15.5 points and 5.5 rebounds and shot 50 percent (17-of-34) from the 3-point line. If that was a special fortnight, great. But what if it was more than that?

Inga Orekhova, senior, G, South Florida: Can defenses front a player on the 3-point line? The 6-foot-2 senior guard from Ukraine, by way of San Diego and Oklahoma, is one of the more challenging matchups in college basketball. She shot 34 percent on nearly eight 3-point attempts per game a season ago, exactly the same percentage she shot from inside the arc. But she does more than shoot, averaging 2.6 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game.