Irish, Eagles, Knights chasing Huskies

Updated: November 18, 2004, 2:53 AM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

Favorite: Connecticut

Yes, the Huskies lost Diana Taurasi, one of the greatest players in college basketball history. But you can't ever count out UConn. The Huskies return too much talent -- how many high school All-Americans were on the bench last season?! -- and more importantly, coach Geno Auriemma, who always seems to get his athletes to play a little bit better than they thought they could.

UConn has won at least a share of the last 11 regular-season titles. This season, juniors Barb Turner (shot a Big East-best 53.6 percent from the field last season) and Ann Strother (11.0 ppg, 61 3-pointers) will try to make it an even dozen, and both are ready to take their games to an All-American level.

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  • Senior center Jessica Moore (9.5 ppg, team-high 7.1 rpg) is expected to have a big season, despite the short turnaround from tearing her right ACL in April's NCAA title game, and should combine with Turner for one of the country's elite post tandems. As of Nov. 3, however, Moore hadn't been cleared to participate in full scrimmages, so look for junior center Willnett Crockett to see more playing time.

    Ashley Battle will continue to complement UConn's backcourt, ideally as the Huskies' "sixth man" (a role Auriemma prefers for her). The Huskies should also get a boost from Nicole Wolff, who's finally healthy, Charde Houston, the Big East preseason freshman of the year, and juco transfer Rashidat Sadiq, a forward who competed for Nigeria in the Athens Olympics.

    Despite UConn's established résumé, a few big questions remain. First, who's going to take over the point guard duties? Freshman Mel Thomas was expected to be the frontrunner, but is battling a stress reaction in her left foot. Ashley Valley got the start in UConn's first exhibition game.

    And of course, who will step up and take over a game when needed now that Taurasi is gone? And for as much as Dee will be missed, don't think for a second the Huskies won't miss Maria Conlon, too. The often-underrated guard consistently and calmly got the ball to the right people and hit the clutch 3-pointer when needed.

    Contenders: Notre Dame, Rutgers, Boston College

    Notre Dame has been inconsistent at times since winning the 2001 title, but the Irish are always competitive and always play hard down the stretch.

    There's no question that Notre Dame's success this season hinges on Jacqueline Batteast (16.0 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 45 percent from field). She's incredibly gifted -- and consistent: she has reached double figures in scoring in 72 of her 90 career games, with 32 double-doubles.

    Though Batteast at times has struggled with her shot in the NCAA Tournament, she is continuing to take her game to the next level. She was, for example, unstoppable in the first three rounds last season, notching three double-doubles and averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds. This season, Batteast must continue to be able to take over a game when it matters.

    Muffet McGraw is an unbelievable coach with a lot of talent, including point guard Megan Duffy (9.9 ppg, 3.6 apg), 6-foot-3 junior Courtney LaVere (8.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.3 bpg), an excellent post, and Teresa Borton. A senior, Borton (5.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg) is another player who should bump up her game in 2004-05. Hampered slightly last season as she recovered from offseason surgery to correct a bone deformity in her heel, Borton started just 20 of 32 games, averaging 19.8 minutes. As a sophomore, however, she started all 32 games and averaged slightly better numbers -- 8.0 points, 5.0 rebounds -- than last season.

    Rutgers has a great incoming class, and it's a good thing since Cappie Pondexter, one of the best point guards in the country, will miss the first half of the season for undisclosed reasons, and Shalicia Hurns was suspended following an off-court incident.

    So right now, a lot of the load falls on Chelsea Newton, who averaged 11.0 points per game and shot 47 percent from field in just 28.2 minutes and 21 appearances last season. Newton must establish a post presence for Rutgers, and after watching her only briefly in practice last season, she's capable of even bigger numbers than she contributed in 2003-04.

    Timing worked against Rutgers in 2004-05, as late-season injuries forced the Scarlet Knights to suit up practice players in the Big East tournament. As a result, they suffered a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament, but don't be fooled -- this is a team that could go far in the second half of the season.

    Pondexter (17.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.3 apg) has a terrific all-around game. She is a great scoring point guard, can pass every efficiently and also has a willingness to play defense. Now she just needs to get back on the court.

    Miracle-maker Amber Jacobs has graduated from Boston College, but the Eagles remain one of the top teams in the Big East, especially with senior guard Jessalyn Deveny returning. Deveny led BC in points (16.3), rebounds (6.2) and steals (54) last season, and her 51 percent accuracy from the field fueled the Eagles' 49 percent shooting.

    Other key returners include: Clare Droesch (8.5 ppg), a 5-11 senior guard/forward; 6-4 junior center Lisa Macchia (10.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg); and sophomore forward Kathrin Ress (9.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 58.7 percent from field).

    Cathy Inglese's squad is very balanced, and like Villanova, hard to guard. And more than anything, Boston College does a nice job of passing the ball and getting it to the right players.

    Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.

    Nancy Lieberman

    Basketball analyst / Writer
    Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.

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