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Big East Preview: UConn, UConn and more UConn!

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The UConn Huskies returned to the Big East last season and resumed their traditional dominance. Expect more of the same this season. So, which squad will finish second in the conference?

Big East Media Day
With Azzi Fudd, Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards, not to mention a number of other players, the UConn Huskies are expected to cruise through the Big East.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

With 20 Big East regular-season championship trophies and 19 Big East tournament championship trophies already stuffing the trophy cases in Storrs, the UConn Huskies are expected to add to this collection by the end of the 2021-22 season.

Any conference drama will derive from the unlikely UConn upset, as well as who will manage to finish second in the standings.

The DePaul Blue Demons are favored for second place, with the Seton Hall Pirates and Marquette Golden Eagles looking to put pressure on them for that spot.

Rewind: A look at where the Big East left off

The Big East’s members enjoyed a seven-season respite from UConn dominance, as the Huskies instead ruled the AAC from 2013-14 to 2019-20. Last season, UConn returned to its longtime conference home and picked up right where it left off with an undefeated conference season, conference regular-season championship and conference tournament championship.

Reprising another UConn tradition, Paige Bueckers earned the Big East’s top individual honor, as she was named Big East Player of the Year. Bueckers also received the conference’s Freshman of the Year award.

Bueckers’ fellow freshman Aaliyah Edwards was named Sixth-Woman of the Year while then-junior Husky Olivia Nelson-Ododa was Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Head coach Geno Auriemma was named Big East Coach of the Year for the 11th time.

In short, the Big East was, once again, the Huskies’ domain.

A No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, UConn advanced to the Final Four before they ran into the red-hot Arizona Wildcats.

Marquette was the only other Big East team to earn a berth to the Big Dance. A No. 10 seed, the Golden Eagles fell to the Virginia Tech Hokies in the first round.

DePaul missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 seasons, instead resigned to the WNIT. Seton Hall, the Villanova Wildcats and the Creighton Bluejays also received WNIT bids.

Team-by-team analysis

Here’s where each team stands entering the 2021-22 season, in order of the preseason standings predicted by the Big East’s head coaches:

1) No. 2 UConn Huskies

In most cases, all the attention would be on Paige Bueckers in eager anticipation of how she will follow up a fabulous freshman season, when she became the first freshman in women’s college hoops history to sweep the national Player of the Year awards. She also captured the Nancy Lieberman Award for the nation’s best point guard.

The sophomore, unsurprisingly, was unanimously selected as the Big East Preseason Player of the Year.

Yet, in ever-stacked Storrs, Bueckers will be sharing the spotlight, including with Azzi Fudd, one of Bueckers’ best buds who was the top-ranked recruit in 2021. Fudd was voted Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year.

However, while Fudd and other talented fresh faces inspire excitement, it is the experience of the Huskies — a trait that last year’s squad lacked — that suggests UConn is equipped to breeze through the Big East.

The Huskies not only will be guided by the senior trio of Evina Westbrook, Christyn Williams and Nelson-Ododa, but also will be boosted by now-experienced sophomores in Edwards and Nika Mühl. Dorka Juhász, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, brings additional depth and experience.

2) DePaul Blue Demons

DePaul is poised to follow up a somewhat disappointing 2020-21 season with an improved effort in 2021-22. In addition to an always-potent Doug Bruno offense, experience should lead to success for the Blue Demons.

DePaul returns all five starters, led by senior guards Sonya Morris and Lexi Held. Both super scorers earned All-Big East First Team honors last season. Morris led the Blue Demons in scoring with 19.3 points per game, while Held added 16.6 points per game. The two were named to the Preseason All-Big East Team.

DePaul can also hope to capture some of the good vibes surrounding Chicago hoops these days.

3) Seton Hall Pirates

Graduate wing Andra Espinoza and junior guard Lauren Park-Lane will aim to steer the Pirates beyond third place in the Big East standings, the spot they have landed the past two seasons.

Both players were selected to the All-Big East First Team last season and enter this season as Preseason All-Big East Team members. Park-Lane also was named Big East Most Improved Player last season, averaging 17.5 points and 5.4 assists per game after posting 6.7 points and 4.2 assists per game as a freshman. She also dropped 29 points on the Huskies! With another leap from Park-Lane, could the Pirates make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016?

4) Marquette Golden Eagles

Last season, Marquette finished second in the conference in the regular season and then advanced to the conference championship game. They also went dancing in the NCAA Tournament.

Yet, even though the Golden Eagles return three starters and welcome two transfers from the Big Ten, head coach Megan Duffy’s squad is not expected to replicate last season’s success.

However, Duffy and experienced forward Lauren Van Kleunen, back for a fifth and final season, likely have other ideas. A Preseason All-Big East Team selection, Van Kleunen was an All-Big East Second Team honoree last season after averaging 13.2 points per game on better than 50 percent shooting from the field. Guard Karissa McLaughlin, a graduate transfer from Perdue who was an All-Big Ten First Teamer in 2018-19, arrives as a running mate with a sweet 3-point stroke.

5) Villanova Wildcats

Villanova alum Denise Dillion made a welcome splash in her first season at the helm of the Wildcats. After finishing the conference slate 9-5, Villanova upset DePaul in the Big East tournament. The Wildcats then advanced to the third round of the WNIT.

Behind junior forward Maddy Siegrist, the leading scorer and rebounder in the Big East last season at 22.8 points and 9.8 boards per game, Villanova has the potential to consistently cause trouble for conference foes this season. Unsurprisingly, Siegrist was selected to the Preseason All-Big East Team.

6) Creighton Bluejays

After COVID-19 concerns led to an up-and-down conference regular season, the Bluejays closed the 2020-21 campaign on an upward swing. Creighton upset Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament before scoring a first-round victory in the WNIT.

To generate positive momentum in 2021-22, the Bluejays will be looking for more from sophomore forward Emma Ronsiek, who started as a freshman and scored 11.6 points per game.

7) St. John’s Red Storm

St. John’s should be situated to improve upon last season’s 4-12 conference record and eighth-place finish. Not only are four starters returning for the Red Storm, but the team also is welcoming two instant-impact transfers in senior forward Danielle Cosgrove (Notre Dame) and graduate wing Danielle Patterson (Indiana).

However, expect junior guard Leilani Correa to remain the engine of the St. John’s offense. Correa scored at least 30 points five times last season on her way to earning a spot on the All-Big East First Team. She was named to the Preseason All-Big East Team.

8) Providence Friars

Eight fresh faces arrive to help the Friars better last season’s 4-10 conference mark. Freshman forward Emily Archibald, the two-time Maine Gatorade Player of the Year, highlights the newcomers.

Yet, returnees will still serve as a steady presence for Providence. Senior forward Mary Baskerville was an All-Big East Second Team honoree after leading the Friars in five key categories — scoring, rebounding, blocks, steals and field goal percentage.

9) Georgetown Hoyas

For a program that has produced a WNBA legend in Rebekkah Brunson and a productive WNBA player in Sugar Rodgers, it has been an underwhelming past decade.

If Georgetown is able to reverse recent fortunes, it will be because sophomore Kelsey Ransom blossoms into a star. A Big East All-Freshman Team member, the young guard led the Hoyas in scoring last season. Georgetown also welcomes back graduate forward Anita Kelava after she sat out last season.

10) Xavier Musketeers

Seven new players will seek to make sure the Musketeers avoid the Big East cellar. Three noteworthy transfers suggest Xavier could have intriguing upside.

After beginning her career at Indiana University as the No. 19 recruit in the class of 2019, Shaila Beeler transferred to Vincennes University in 2020. Last season, she turned in a JUCO All-American performance. She now will suit up for the Musketeers, as will graduate center Mikayla Hayes (Clemson) and sophomore guard Shelby Calhoun (Virginia Tech).

11) Bulter Bulldogs

Butler likewise will be turning to transfers to help exceed last season’s three wins.

Graduate forward Celena Taborn (Furman) and redshirt freshman guard Kendall Wingler (Eastern Kentucky) will hope to support the Bulldogs’ best returning player in graduate guard Genesis Parker, a 12.7 points per game scorer last season. The Bulldogs also will look for growth from redshirt sophomore guard and potential sharpshooter Tenley McDowell, who started more than half of last season’s contests.

Preseason nods

As voted on by the Big East’s head coaches:

Player of the Year: Paige Bueckers (UConn)

All-Big East Team: Christyn Williams (UConn), Olivia Nelson-Ododa (UConn), Aaliyah Edwards (UConn), Sonya Morris (DePaul), Lexi Held (DePaul), Lauren Van Kleunen (Marquette), Leilani Correa (St. John’s), Andra Espinoza-Hunter (Seton Hall), Lauren Park-Lane (Seton Hall), Maddy Siegrist (Villanova)

Key conference dates

Dec. 19: Big East season start (Marquette vs. Seton Hall)

Must-see Big East matchups

Dec. 29: UConn vs. Marquette. The Huskies begin conference play with a visit to the Golden Eagles. Is there any chance Marquette can take advantage of a possible holiday hangover and steal a victory from UConn?

Dec. 31: UConn vs. DePaul. Another potentially interesting early-season road test for the Huskies. Can the Blue Demons call on their experience to pull off the upset?

Feb. 25: DePaul vs. Seton Hall. Most likely, these squads will be contending for second place in the conference. The second of their head-to-head matchups could not only determine who earns the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament (which could allow them to avoid meeting UConn until the tile game), but also could have implications for both teams’ NCAA tournament resumes.