UConn still the favorite as Big East tourney opens
The third-ranked Connecticut Huskies are the team to beat in Hartford this weekend when the Big East tournament opens.
UConn ran the table in conference play in the regular season, finishing 16-0 against league foes. The Huskies were impressive throughout the campaign and were rarely challenged in league play. Geno Auriemma's club picked up its most impressive win on Monday night in hostile territory, pulling away from Rutgers at the RAC in Piscataway, N.J., with another balanced attack and a smothering defensive effort.
Here's how the Big East tournament field breaks down:
(1) Connecticut: The Huskies roll into the Hartford Civic Center on a 13-game win streak. They have not lost since falling to North Carolina on Jan. 15. UConn has had little trouble beating the other five teams in its side of the Big East bracket. The Huskies regular-season victories over West Virginia, Louisville, South Florida, Seton Hall and St. John's came by an average margin of 26 points.
The secret to UConn's success has been a balanced offensive attack with five different players scoring in double figures. Freshman center Tina Charles (12.8 ppg, team-high 8.8 rpg, 58 percent shooting from field) might be the Huskies' best player. She can score, rebound and run, and is a tough matchup due to her length and mobility. Charles also is the front-runner for national freshman of the year honors.
The maturity of point guard Renee Montgomery gives UConn an experienced ball-handler and floor general if the Huskies do happen to find themselves in a tight spot. Montgomery recently proved she can hit the big shot in a big game by nailing a game-winning 3-pointer at LSU.
Wings Kalana Greene and Charde Houston can be big-time scorers and both are at their best in the open court. Shooter Mel Thomas is one of the most accurate 3-point threats in the nation (74-for-166, 45 percent) and the Huskies have some post depth with Kaili McLaren and Brittany Hunter.
All the pieces seem to be in place for the Huskies to give the home fans plenty to cheer about at the Hartford Civic Center.
(4) West Virginia: Before UConn can wear the crown, the Huskies will probably have to get past the Mountaineers. West Virginia beat Lousiville in its final regular-season game to edge the Cardinals for the fourth seed and a first-round bye. The win also snapped Louisville's 21-game home-court win streak. Last year, WVU was the surprise of the postseason, rising as a 12th seed to to knock off top-seeded Rutgers. The Mountaineers then almost pulled off another upset by scaring UConn in the Big East final.
WVU is on a tear, winning 12 of its last 14 games. Junior Yinka Sanni is strong in the middle and is a terrific offensive rebounder who will have to stay active. LaQuita Owens, a junior guard, scored a career-high 30 points in the overtime win over Louisville. The Mountaineers will probably face the Cardinals again in the quarterfinals.
(5) Louisville: Angel McCoughtry is the leading candidate for Big East Player of the Year honors. In the regular season, she averaged 22.1 points and 10.9 rebounds to become just the second player in the 25-year history of the league to top the conference in scoring and rebounding (Georgetown's Rebekkah Brunson is the other). Power forward Jazz Covington is a strong second option and the Cards are back at full strength with the recent return of guard Helen Johnson from injury.
Opponents have to keep Louisville off the glass and slow down its running game. The Cards' Achilles' heel is free-throw shooting (62.5 percent), where they rank dead last in the Big East.
• Also watch for perhaps the most intriguing matchup of opening day. The showdown between eighth-seeded South Florida and No. 9 Seton Hall could determine who gets the eighth and final invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Nine teams advancing to the Big Dance would be a record. USF, with the school's career scoring leader in senior Jessica Dickson (2,321 points), is a threat. The Bulls just beat Seton Hall in the regular-season finale while the Pirates have already toppled Marquette and Pittsburgh this year.
(2) Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights have lost twice to UConn in the last six weeks, their only two losses over a stretch that has also seen Rutgers win 9 of 11 games. To beat Rutgers you have to figure out ways to score against one of the top defenses in the country. The Scarlet Knights have tremendous perimeter quickness in Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson. Rutgers also has the inside force of Kia Vaughn, the top shot-blocker in the Big East (75 blocks in 27 games).
Vaughn also works hard on the glass and has vastly improved her offensive skill set this year. Freshman guard Epiphanny Prince leads Rutgers in scoring (13.4 ppg) and is a big reason the Scarlet Knights are the top 3-point shooting team (37 percent from downtown) in the conference.
A big hurdle for Rutgers will be a mental one. The Scarlet Knights showed up at the Big East tournament the last two years as the team to beat -- and got beat. They proved at the end of the regular season a year ago that they could win at UConn and they hope to get another shot at the Huskies in the final on Tuesday.
(3) Marquette: The bracket lines up very nicely for the Golden Eagles, who could avenge a pair of regular-season losses to Pittsburgh and Rutgers on the way to the final. But which Marquette team will show up in Hartford? The one that almost upset UConn or the one that inexplicably stumbled at Seton Hall? Coach Terri Mitchell's club certainly has the personnel to challenge for the Big East championship. Marquette has the top scoring tandem in the league with the inside-outside combo of Christina Quaye and Krystal Ellis.
The Golden Eagles play a stingy 2-3 zone that is long and wide and they have only been outrebounded a handful of times all season. They prefer a faster tempo and Mitchell likes to see a minimum of 10 fast-break baskets a game. She is the favorite for Big East Coach of the Year honors as Marquette's record-breaking season continues into the postseason.
(6) Pittsburgh: Pitt reached the 20-win mark in the regular season, the first time for the Panthers in 26 years. They rely on their scoring trio of guard Shavonte Zellous, center Marcedes Walker and forward Xenia Stewart. The threesome provides 70 percent of Pitt's points. Zellous is one of the most improved players in the country this season, while Walker is a force on the low block.
Potential Pitt-falls could be minimal 3-point production this year and a reliance on freshman Jania Sims to handle the pressure at the point guard position.
On the plus side, the Panthers have plenty of incentive to gain some momentum at the Big East tournament. From Hartford, they will probably head back home for the NCAA first and second rounds at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh. A good seed on Selection Monday could lead to a trip to the Sweet 16.
• There will be a lot on the line in the showdown between 7-seed Notre Dame and 10th-seeded DePaul Saturday night. The Irish would feel much more comfortable on Selection Monday if they can beat the Blue Demons for their 20th win of the season. DePaul needs to advance deep into the Big East tournament to impress the NCAA selection committee. The Blue Demons can score and can shoot the 3 and have already beaten Notre Dame and potential quarterfinal foe Rutgers this season.
It will be hard to take down Connecticut at the Huskies' home away from home in the Hartford Civic Center. UConn has won 131 of its last 133 Big East home games. But the Big East tournament can be unpredictable. The regular season champion has not won the tournament title in each of the last four years -- and has only taken home the trophy once since 2000.Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.
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