Big East media poll picks Rutgers women to win

Updated: October 27, 2005, 11:57 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Rutgers topped Big East rival Connecticut without making a basket.

The Scarlet Knights, who return four starters from a team that reached the NCAA Tournament's round of eight, was picked Thursday to win the conference this season, knocking UConn from the top spot for the first time in 13 years.

"It's a challenge and I'm anxious to see how we rise to that," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said during media day in midtown Manhattan. "It's one thing when you are hunting. It's another thing when you are hunted."

The Scarlet Knights received 11 first-place votes from the league's coaches to five for the Huskies, who have won five NCAA titles in the last decade and been the preseason choice since the 1992-93 season.

In a trifecta, Rutgers guard Cappie Pondexter was voted preseason player of the year while center Kia Vaughn was chosen freshman of the year.

UConn suffered from inconsistent play and lost in the round of 16 last season, ending its streak of three straight national championships. The Huskies return three starters in Ann Strother and Barbara Turner, both named to the preseason All-Big East team, and Nicole Wolff.

It's one thing when you are hunting. It's another thing when you are hunted.
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer

"We hope to improve on what was a very, very disappointing year last year," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "My fans are adamant that if we're 25-8 again next year, heads are going to roll."

DePaul, one of the five teams from Conference USA to join the new-look Big East, was fourth in voting behind Notre Dame. Coach Doug Bruno's Blue Demons led the nation in scoring (82.7), finished 26-5 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Big East boasts the largest Division I conference with other newcomers Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida. Gone is Boston College, which headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The conference has won six of the last 10 NCAA championships, including five straight from 2000-04. Only Notre Dame interrupted UConn's run in 2001.

"Five new members makes us not only bigger, but better in terms of overall depth," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said.

The Big East will have a nationally televised game of the week, which will be broadcast on College Sports Television on Tuesdays.

Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw knows what the visibility of the Big East did for her program after they joined in the 1995-96 season.

"We elevated our recruiting and the perception of our team nationally changed," McGraw said. "We had some really good teams before that, but we never got anywhere in the NCAA Tournament because we never got any good seeds."

Pondexter, returning for her fifth year of eligibility, led Rutgers with 14.7 points and 3.1 assists last season. She helped stopped UConn's run of 11 straight regular-season titles, but the Huskies avenged the loss in the conference Tournament championship.

Pondexter played with Notre Dame's Megan Duffy in the World University Games in August, when they led the United States to the gold medal in Turkey.

"I just have to continue to work hard," Pondexter said. "The honors will take care of themselves."

Sophomore teammate Matee Ajavon joins Pondexter and Duffy on the All-Big East team. Ajavon has been bothered by a stress fracture in her left leg and Essence Carson has tendinitis in her right knee.

UConn sophomore Charde Houston has been sidelined with a left Achilles' tendon injury, but is expected to return to practice next week.

New Providence coach Phil Seymore, whose team went 1-27 last year, aspires to have Auriemma's problems.

"Geno, I just want to be like you, man," Seymore said. "I want to be like Connecticut so I can get up here and say, 'We're 28-5 and our fans want to kill us.' "

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press