Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis has Maya Moore's number
The label above her head is imaginary. Next-greatest this, next-greatest that. The new Maya.
The number on her back, 23, that's tangible. It's the one Maya Moore, a two-time Associated Press National Player of the Year, wore in helping Connecticut to two national championships and four Final Four appearances.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, a 6-foot freshman forward, said she's often mistaken for Moore in public and already has drawn comparisons for their similar personalities. She had worn No. 23 for several years, right through her senior season at Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif., where she averaged 22 points, 6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game to lead her team to a second straight state title and top national ranking from USA Today.
Mosqueda-Lewis knew the number carried weight at UConn, but she wanted it. So she asked Moore for permission.
She got it. Mostly.
"At first Maya said, 'Can't we just let it [the number] rest for a little bit?" Mosqueda-Lewis told the Hartford Courant. "I said, 'I'm sorry Maya. I can't really help the fact that I am coming this year. Can I get the number?' She said, 'We'll have to think about it.'
When assistant coach Marisa Moseley called Mosqueda-Lewis to ask about her number, the freshman said she wanted No. 23 and that she had talked to Moore about it. Moseley told Mosqueda-Lewis the number was hers.
"I said, 'Did you ask Maya?' and she [Moseley] said, 'Uh, you just have it,'" Mosqueda-Lewis said. "So Maya hasn't exactly given me permission, so I hope she's not upset when she finds out. I found out about a week before I arrived that I would wear it."
KML, as she has been dubbed by local media already weary of typing her name, has long dealt with associations with greatness. She was compared to Lisa Leslie when the WNBA star appeared at her high school to present her the Gatorade Player of the Year trophy last year. While Mosqueda-Lewis seems eager to make her own way, she doesn't seem intimidated by comparisons.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma, though certainly cognizant of the freshman's many similarities to Moore -- including her personality, appearance and jump shot -- has attempted to temper expectations.
"Kaleena isn't going to be Maya Moore," he told the Hartford Courant. "What's funny is, people that are making those comparisons, well, 99 percent of them have never seen her in a basketball uniform."
Won't be long now.
Team to beat
Notre Dame, not Connecticut. Maybe by the end of the season, UConn will step up with the proper development of younger players pressed to replace Moore, but for now Skylar Diggins and Notre Dame appear primed for a run at the conference title after advancing to the NCAA title game last season. Diggins, dubbed by coaches as the preseason conference player of the year, averaged 15 points, 4 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game as a sophomore.
Diggins will be supported by fellow preseason all-conference first-teamers in senior forward Devereaux Peters and senior guard Natalie Novosel. All three were All-Americans last season. The Irish return nearly 85 percent of their scoring offense and open the season No. 2 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll behind Baylor.
Connecticut has ruled the Big East for nearly two decades, and won the conference regular-season and tournament titles for the fourth straight year last season while stretching its conference winning streaks to 55 games overall and 83 at home. The Huskies also advanced to the Final Four for the fourth straight season, but there are questions -- most important, how to replace Moore, the top selection in the WNBA draft.
Moore's 22.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game will be tough to replace, but the Huskies boast four returning starters, including sophomore Bria Hartley and senior Tiffany Hayes. Additional help figures to be on the way from a stellar recruiting class that features Mosqueda-Lewis, Brianna Banks and Kiah Stokes.
Connecticut is fourth in the preseason poll.
The Louisville Cardinals, ranked ninth in the preseason poll, return four starters from a team that advanced to the Sweet 16 last year. Monique Reid (15.5 points per game), an all-conference first-teamer for the second time, and Shoni Schimmel (15.1 ppg, 172 total assists) will be relied on for scoring.
Georgetown should be in position to take the next steps toward developing into a consistent conference winner. The Hoyas won 24 games last season (9-7 in the Big East, including victories over ranked Syracuse and West Virginia) and finished 14th in the final ESPN poll.
The Hoyas won twice in the NCAA tournament before being ousted by UConn. Four starters return from that team, including junior Sugar Rodgers (18.7 points per game) as well as Rubylee Wright, Tia Magee and Adria Crawford, who are part of a seven-member senior class.
Preseason player of the year
Diggins, Notre Dame. The junior became a national darling during a run to the NCAA tournament final last season as she averaged 19.3 points per game. Doing it again will be a lot more difficult.
There are new demands on her time, more attention on her personal life -- after rapper Lil Wayne sported her jersey at a show -- and heightened expectations.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is doing her best to mitigate those outside pressures to allow her star to simply shine on the court, but it won't be easy. Neither will unseating UConn from the top of the Big East, yet another source of pressure and expectation.
If Diggins can do it, her fame will multiply exponentially.
Game of the year
UConn at Notre Dame, Jan. 7. The Huskies like being the dominant force of the Big East. It feels comfortable and familiar. They are defending regular-season and tournament champions.
The Irish would like to have each of those things for themselves. Their first meeting of the season should be extremely entertaining. That Auriemma lashed out at Notre Dame's independent football program as a root cause of the conference's overall instability should heighten the anticipation and intensity in South Bend.
Story to watch
Auriemma is confident that the raw materials for another potent Huskies team are in his locker room. With UConn a self-perpetuating wins machine, he's probably right. But Moore's departure has created a yawning void. Who takes the big shot? Who steadies them when things are off-kilter?
UConn will have to answer those questions to retain its hold on the conference.
"Maya leaving makes [winning] more difficult, but that mentality is still there and that's something we can build on," Auriemma said. "It's going to take us a little bit longer and we're going to have to work a little bit longer to get the same results."
Eventually, he said, a leader will emerge. He suggested it may be sophomore Hartley, who scored eight consecutive points in a span of 1:47 last season to hold off Baylor in the waning minutes.
"Players that want to make those shots, they step up and find the ball and find a way to make those plays,'' Auriemma said. "I want to see who, on their own, says 'Give me the ball.'"
Stat to watch
The Big East has posted at least a .729 winning percentage in nonconference regular-season games each season since 2006-07, going 814-235 during that span.
Going to the Dance
The Big East broke its record by sending nine teams to the NCAA tournament and one to the WNIT last season. It could repeat this year. Look for Connecticut, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Rutgers, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, St. John's and West Virginia to make the NCAA field.