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Big East preview: UConn is in Azzi Fudd’s hands

Without Paige Bueckers, UConn will go as far as Azzi Fudd can take them, but that may be further than some people think. However, the Huskies might not go undefeated in their own conference with the Creighton Bluejays returning familiar faces from last year’s Elite Eight run.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Final Four - Portraits
Azzi Fudd was the No. 1 Hoop Gurlz recruit in the class of 2021.
Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

We continue our conference preview series with the Big East. Here is a look at each team in order of predicted finish according to the preseason coaches poll.

1) No. 6 UConn Huskies

Players to watch (preseason All-Big East list): Azzi Fudd (First Team), Aaliyah Edwards (First), Caroline Ducharme (First), Dorka Juhász (honorable mention), Ayanna Patterson

Last season, UConn showed improvement as the team went from Final Four elimination in 2021 to national runner-up. Perhaps because their dominance has been mostly dwindling aside from that improvement, or perhaps because it is perceived as emotionally difficult to bounce back from getting so close to a championship, Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma finally found himself addressing the following question entering the 2022-23 season: will you guys ever win another championship in your time as head coach?

Auriemma’s answer was yes, but to do it this year they will have to overcome the absences of 2021 AP Player of the Year Paige Bueckers (out for the season with a torn ACL) and No. 5 Hoop Gurlz recruit Ice Brady (out for the season with a dislocated patella).

A lot will fall on Azzi Fudd’s shoulders; we’ll see if she can make a big jump as a sophomore. Fudd was heralded by ESPN as the “best prospect in decades,” which would mean higher expectations than even Bueckers, but her freshman season did not live up to the standard set by Bueckers. With that being said, Fudd still has the tools to become better and make UConn more dangerous than people are anticipating.

Junior Aaliyah Edwards joins Fudd on the preseason All-Big East Team, as does Fudd’s classmate Caroline Ducharme. Edwards is going to need to be a solid presence in the frontcourt and we’ll see if Ducharme can achieve star status after a season in which, when she played big minutes, she delivered with points. The Huskies are also getting versatile former Buckeye Dorka Juhász back from a gruesome wrist injury suffered in the NCAA Tournament. No. 4 Hoop Gurlz recurit Ayanna Patterson rounds out UConn’s players to watch.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - National Championship
Aaliyah Edwards
Photo by Ethan Mito/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

2) No. 21 Creighton Bluejays

Players to watch: Emma Ronsiek (First), Lauren Jensen (First), Morgan Maly (honorable mention)

Creighton returns from its first Sweet Sixteen and first Elite Eight as the No. 21 team in the country. Coming back are second-round hero Lauren Jensen and the player who put up the best numbers over the three tournament wins: Morgan Maly. Also returning is leading scorer and rebounder Emma Ronsiek, who averaged 13.9 points and five rebounds last year. Graduated is Tatum Rembao, who averaged 6.1 assists last year (10th in the nation) and scored 19 points in the Sweet Sixteen upset of Iowa State. Rembao is a big loss in the distributing department, but Ronsiek, Jensen and Maly were the team’s top three scorers last year, all averaging double figures. Not only do they have that consistency, but they also proved in the Big Dance that they have the big-moment gene.

3) RV (25 points) Villanova Wildcats

Players to watch: Maddy Siegrist (preseason Big East Player of the Year), Maddie Burke, Lucy Olsen

The Wildcats have arguably the biggest star in the conference in Maddy Siegrist, who is the reigning Big East Player of the Year after averaging 25.3 points (second in the nation) and 9.2 rebounds in 2021-22. However, Siegrist is the only Wildcat receiving preseason All-Big East honors, so Villanova will be more reliant upon Siegrist than UConn and Creighton are on their top players. The Wildcats’ next-best player may be Maddie Burke, a Penn State transfer who put up 8.9 points per game as a Big Ten freshman in 2020-21. She made 58 threes at a 35.4 percent clip that year. The Wildcats’ next-best returner after Siegrist is sophomore Lucy Olsen, who averaged seven points and 2.7 assists last year. Olsen is used to being a key member of the team; she started all 33 games and averaged 29.8 minutes as a freshman.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament Championship-UConn vs Villanova
Maddy Siegrist (right)
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

T4) RV (19 points) DePaul Blue Demons

Players to watch: Aneesah Morrow (First), Anaya Peoples, Jade Edwards

Aneesah Morrow also has a case to be considered the biggest star in the conference. While Siegrist got the nod for Big East Player of the Year both at the end of last season and at the beginning of this season, the national media prefers Morrow. She was a Second Team All-American last year (Siegrist made the Third Team) and she is the lone Big East representative on the preseason AP All-American this year. Only six players made that list. It’s an accolade Morrow received after a phenomenal freshman year in which she averaged 21.9 points, 13.8 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 1.8 blocks. She did all that after not being included in the ESPN Hoop Gurlz Top 100.

A couple of transfers will try to help Morrow get the Blue Demons back into the NCAA Tournament. Anaya Peoples comes over from Notre Dame, where she averaged 12.6 points and 8.1 rebounds as a freshman in 2019-20. And Jade Edwards comes over from American, where she averaged 17.4 points and 7.4 rebounds over the 11 games of her junior campaign (2020-21). She also averaged a career-best 3.3 helpers per game last year.

NCAA Womens Basketball: DePaul at Connecticut
Aneesah Morrow
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

T4) Seton Hall Pirates

Players to watch: Lauren Park-Lane (First), Sidney Cooks (First), Kae Satterfield

Though Seton Hall is not receiving any votes from the media for the national Top 25, the Big East coaches think it will be on par with DePaul. The two teams are tied for fourth in the preseason poll.

The Pirates finished in sixth place in the Big East last year with solid records overall (24-13) an in the conference (12-8). They will try to build on that success and make their first NCAA Tournament since 2016.

Lauren Park-Lane gives the program reason to be excited. She averaged 18.3 points last year and was fourth in the nation with seven assists per game. Sidney Cooks joins her on the preseason All-Big East Team after averaging 15.9 points and 7.9 rebounds. Cooks previously was a solid player at Michigan State in 2017-18 and 2018-19. The Pirates also have Kae Satterfield, who comes over from Xavier after averaging 11 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists last year.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Seton Hall at Connecticut
Lauren Park-Lane (jersey #3)
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

6) Marquette Golden Eagles

Players to watch: Jordan King (First), Kennedi Myles, Liza Karlen

In the last few years before UConn returned to the conference, the Big East was all about Marquette and DePaul. In UConn’s first year back (2020-21), the Golden Eagles remained among the top two teams, finishing second to the Huskies with a 14-3 conference record. But last year they fell to fifth at 13-7 and this year they are picked to finish sixth.

Hoping to lead the program toward upholding its high standard will be Jordan King, who averaged 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.4 steals last year. Joining her is Kennedi Myles, who averaged 8.9 points. 8.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals as a freshman at Illinois in 2019-20, and Liza Karlen, who averaged 10.2 points and 7.2 rebounds last year as a sophomore.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel
Jordan King (jersey #23)
Dave Kallmann / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

7) St. John’s Red Storm

Players to watch: Kadaja Bailey (First), Jayla Everett, Rayven Peeples

There was a big drop-off between the Top 6 teams and the next four in the Big East last year and St. John’s came in seventh, where it is predicted to finish again this year. It went 12-19 overall and 7-12 in conference play in 2021-22.

Fifth-year senior Kadaja Bailey will lead the way for the Red Storm after showing a big improvement last year; she raised her scoring average by 4.4 to 14.2 and increased her career-best 3-pointers made total by 30 to 38. She shot 35.5 percent from beyond the arc. Jayla Everett will be another key player for St. John’s. The former Pitt Panther brings ACC experience; she averaged 15.6 points in that conference in 2020-21. Meanwhile, Rayven Peeples is a returning fifth-year senior who averaged 8.8 points and 9.6 rebounds last year.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 05 Big East Women’s Tournament - St Johns v Villanova
Kadaja Bailey (with ball)
Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

8) Providence Friars

Players to watch: Janai Crooms (First), Kylee Sheppard, Olivia Olsen

Providence went 11-19 last year (6-14 Big East) and finished eighth in the conference, where they are predicted to finish again this year. Janai Crooms is back for her second season with the team after spending time at Michigan State and Ohio State. She led the Friars in points (13.8), rebounds (7.2) and assists (3.5) per game last year, as well as total steals, though not steals per game. Providence also features sophomores Kylee Sheppard (9.4 points per game last year) and Olivia Olsen (6.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last year).

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 27 Women’s - Providence at UConn
Janai Crooms (with ball)
Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

T9) Butler Bulldogs

Players to watch: Shay Frederick, Rachel McLimore, Kendall Wingler

Butler’s only win last year came against Evansville, which finished 8-22. The Bulldogs were 0-18 in the Big East. At least this year they are predicted to get out of last place. Hoping to turn their fortunes around will be graduate transfer Shay Frederick, who put together a solid career at Valparaiso, including 14.5 points per game in 2020-21 and over four assists per game each of the last three seasons. The team also brings in another graduate transfer in Rachel McLimore, who scored 13.7 points per game at IUPUI in 2020-21. The Bulldogs’ top returner is junior Kendall Wingler, who averaged 10.9 points as a freshman at Eastern Kentucky.

COLLEGE BASKETBAL: NOV 10 Women’s - Indiana at Butler
Kendall Wingler (jersey #55)
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

T9) Georgetown Hoyas

Players to watch: Kelsey Ransom, Jada Claude, Kennedy Fauntleroy

The Hoyas were 10-19 overall last year and finished ninth in the Big East with a 4-15 conference record. They return junior Kelsey Ransom, who has played her whole college career at Georgetown and has averaged 11.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, four assists and 2.4 steals. In addition, the Hoyas add former Duke Blue Devil Jada Claude, who averaged 13.6 points and 7.1 rebounds for Morehead State last year. Rounding out Georgetown’s players to watch is Kennedy Fauntleroy, who is the No. 75 Hoop Gurlz recruit this year. She is the Hoyas’ first Top 100 recruit since Shanniah Wright (No. 83 in 2018).

NCAA Womens Basketball: Georgetown at Connecticut
Kelsey Ransom (with ball)
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

11) Xavier Musketeers

Players to watch: Nila Blackford, Taylor Smith, Shaila Beeler

Xavier finished a half a game behind Georgetown in the Big East last year. It was 9-21 overall. Nila Blackford comes over from from Kent State to join the Musketeers. She put up some really good numbers with the Golden Flashes, including 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game in 2020-21. The Musketeers also have a Power 5 transfer in Taylor Smith (from Ole Miss). Smith was on Xavier’s roster last year but sat out due to injury. She averaged 23.5 minutes and 6.3 points for the Rebels in 2019-20. Shaila Beeler is the team’s top returner, having averaged 8.2 points and four assists in 2021-22.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Xavier at Connecticut
Shaila Beeler (left) with Xavier head coach Melanie Moore
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports