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UConn women's basketball back in Big East as favorite to win conference

Connecticut's Christyn Williams shoots over Cincinnati's IImar'I Thomas

Connecticut's Christyn Williams shoots over Cincinnati's IImar'I Thomas and Florence Sifa during the first half of the AAC Tournament final at Mohegan Sun Arena on March 9 in Uncasville, Conn.  Credit: AP/Jessica Hill

The Big East on Thursday bore witness to the one certainty in this coming women’s college basketball season to be played amid the coronavirus pandemic. UConn is back in the conference it once helped start and was predictably installed as the favorite to win the championship when the preseason poll of coaches was released. The Huskies were the unanimous pick to win the conference.

Three-time defending champion DePaul finished second, Marquette third and St. John’s fourth in the now 11-team league.

The rest of the picture for the Big East’s women’s basketball season is hazy. Each school will play four games before Christmas, but how it will play out the rest of the 20-game conference schedule is unknown as a travel model, a single-venue ‘bubble’ and other possibilities are considered. Marquette is in the middle of a forced 14-day hiatus because of a member of the program tested positive for COVID-19.

A deal is in place for Mohegan Sun to host the conference tournaments, but commissioner Val Ackerman said her standard for a successful 2020-21 campaign is "finishing the season."

The Big East completed its 2020 conference tournament in Chicago two days before college sports was brought to a standstill by the pandemic and the NCAA Tournament was cancelled.

There are a myriad of unknowns, but none of them could tarnish the luster of the Huskies’ return on Thursday. UConn won 18 Big East titles before the conference splintered before the 2014-15 school year and it captured every conference crown during its seven season in the American Athletic Conference. It has won 11 national championships, eight while in the Big East.

"We just brought in a team that has, in many ways, put women's basketball on the map," Ackerman said. "They burst onto the scene (and) I remember those early rivalries with Tennessee and how ESPN became so energized . . . to create a home (for) women's basketball. But their role in the modernization of women's basketball and the move to the WNBA cannot be overstated. And they've kept it going,"

Providence coach Jim Crowley said that since UConn left, the Big East has produced a several good teams and a number of top players but the Huskies’ return "takes a league that’s been a little under the radar" and "brings us instant credibility."

As UConn rose to prominence in the old Big East, it set a bar that other programs in the league tried to meet by stepping up recruiting and playing more challenging schedules. Notre Dame, now in the ACC, was one of the programs that became a perennial national contender in its pursuit of the Huskies.

"It will raise our level across the Big East," Marquette coach Megan Duffy said. "Great players will want to play against the best."

"They will lift the profile of the league, create a higher standard of excellence for all of our schools and generally help us maintain a leader-like position as we look to have the women's game grow," Ackerman said. "The efforts on the recruiting trail are starting to pay off: we're being told that it's doing (well) Big East’s association now with their program."

The Huskies will be led by Preseason Player of the Year Christyn Williams, a junior guard, and Preseason Freshman of the Year Paige Bueckers, a forward and the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruit.

St. John’s was 19-12 last season and returns a pair of Preseason All-Conference selections in senior guard Qadashah Hoppie and sophomore guard Leilani Correa. Hoppie, who averaged 15.4 points, was a unanimous all-conference pick.

The Red Storm will be stronger on the interior with the addition of 6-4 Rayven Peeples and 6-foot Fapou Semebene, a pair of junior college transfers.

"We've been pleased with the development of those that were here and, certainly, we added two players that we think will help us a lot," Storm coach Joe Tartamella said, "but a lot will go into (how) we develop as a team."

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