Commentary

New league, same target on back

Reigning champion UConn starts out at No. 1, chasing record ninth title

Originally Published: November 4, 2013
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

On March 31, 2013, the women's basketball world was still stunned by what was easily one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history. And part of absorbing Louisville's Sweet 16 victory over Baylor was realizing that Connecticut was back in dynasty mode.

Not that the Huskies are necessarily ever out of that mode. But with top-seeded Baylor gone, UConn became the prohibitive favorite. And that's exactly how the rest of the tournament played out. A freshman, Breanna Stewart, was voted most outstanding player at the Women's Final Four. She and three other UConn starters would return for 2013-14, while Baylor lost four of five starters.

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Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFour of five starters return for UConn as it begins its quest for a ninth NCAA title.

So no sooner than the Huskies' 93-60 championship victory over Louisville ended in New Orleans, talk began about how many more titles the Huskies might be able to string together. Now that we're on the eve of the new season, that's the main storyline in big type: Who can stop UConn? (Make that enormous type.)

"The world that we live in up here, it's like that every year," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said at American Athletic Conference media day. "Some years, it's more realistic than others. I know when we have the best team and a better-than-average chance of winning it. Going into this season, knowing who we have back and if everybody stays healthy, I wouldn't trade my team for anyone else's."

The Huskies are playing in a new conference, but other than that, it's the same old, same old. The Big East is reformed and rebranded and will establish its new identity in women's basketball without either UConn or Notre Dame (which will join the ACC).

The American will strive not to be known as the "leftover league," comprised of schools that didn't get invited to so-called big conferences in the past few years of the nationwide conference swap meet.

The Huskies will establish the American immediately in women's basketball, and have familiar foes such as Louisville and Rutgers around for the first season. Then the Cardinals go to the ACC, and the Scarlet Knights to the Big Ten.

UConn might feel a bit like the established superstar on a show that watches as all its top co-stars go on to other shows -- yet still has more than enough wattage to keep the marquee perpetually well lit. Which is to say that in women's basketball, UConn will make the American matter right from the start.

Auriemma has said several times how sorry he is to see the demise of what we'll always now refer to as the "old Big East." But he's also aware there's nothing to be done but move forward with the same standard of excellence that the Huskies have made their yearly mission.

What's almost as impressive as the eight NCAA titles that UConn has won: The fact that every year since winning their first, in 1995, the Huskies have at least been in the mix for a national championship. Even in so-called "down" years such as 1998-99 or 2004-05, when they lost in the Sweet 16, the Huskies were still one of the top teams in the nation.

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AP Photo/Carolyn KasterStefanie Dolson, giving President Obama rabbit ears, and the Huskies were honored for their eighth NCAA title at the White House in July.

They've now made six consecutive Final Four appearances, with three championships in that stretch. A ninth title this year would give them the most in NCAA women's history, breaking their tie with Tennessee.

That the Women's Final Four will be held in Nashville, right in the dead center of the Volunteer State, is an intriguing bit of happenstance, but the kind of thing you can't help but notice. UConn might pass Tennessee for NCAA titles in Tennessee? How nightmarish would that be for Lady Vols fans?

Yet before we get months ahead of ourselves, let's look at the main characters in what could be another march to perfection for the Huskies. The aforementioned Stewart, a 6-foot-4 sophomore post player who can do pretty much everything, had her rough days and weeks as a rookie.

But when it came to the most important part of the season, the NCAA tournament, she was dialed in like a veteran. Stewart missed UConn's first-round game (which it won by only 68 points), and then she proceeded to score 105 points in the next five. That included 23 in the championship game, which she really took over.

Stewart has been projected as the latest in a long line of transcendent UConn stars, but she did something that those immediately before her -- Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi -- didn't do. She got a championship as a freshman. But will she be able to equal or exceed Taurasi's three career NCAA titles?

Stewart, who averaged 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds last season, won't have to do it alone this year, of course. Junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis returns as the Huskies' leading scorer (17.6 PPG) and one of the best 3-point threats you'll see. She shot 49.2 percent (118-of-240) from behind the arc last season, and was a consistent performer throughout the season.

Senior guard Bria Hartley missed time last season because of a lingering ankle injury, and that somewhat slowed what was projecting as a fantastic season for her. Yet by tournament time, she was in high gear, too, and had 28 points combined in the two games at the Final Four.

Our expectation is to be in the Final Four. What happens after that, you can't predict. But I like our chances.

-- Geno Auriemma

Hartley's fellow senior, center Stefanie Dolson, has steadily improved her skill set and stamina each of her first three seasons. She averaged 13.6 points and 7.1 rebounds last season, and provides the Huskies both effervescent and edgy personality traits. Dolson won't back down from anyone inside, and she has evolved as a dangerous passing threat, too, with 117 assists last season -- almost twice as many as her first two years combined.

The Huskies lost the gritty leadership of graduated guards Kelly Faris and Caroline Doty. The versatility and hustle of Faris' defense, in particular, will be a hole that UConn has to fill. But sophomore Moriah Jefferson and junior Brianna Banks are ready step into bigger roles. Banks is back after suffering a knee injury Feb. 2 that prematurely ended her 2012-13 season. The Huskies also expect to get backcourt help from freshman Saniya Chong.

UConn will face Stanford (Nov. 11 on ESPN2), Maryland (Nov. 15 on ESPNU) and Penn State (Nov. 17) in November, the latter two on the road. The Huskies travel to Duke on Dec. 17 (ESPN2), and meet last year's Final Four newcomer, Cal, in the Maggie Dixon Classic in New York on Dec. 22 (ESPN2). They also have a nonconference matchup at Baylor on Jan. 13 (ESPN2).

The conference schedule will take some getting used to -- including trips to Texas to play Houston and SMU -- and no one could honestly claim this is a league UConn truly wanted to be in. But the Huskies will make the best of it, and certainly will draw bigger-than-usual crowds to the home arenas of some of their new conference mates.

The American tournament, unlike the Big East, won't be in Hartford. But it will still be in Connecticut, at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, which is also the home of WNBA's Sun.

Auriemma has agreed to another cycle of coaching the U.S. national team in the next world championship and Olympic Games -- two other competitions that he'll be "expected" to win. Auriemma always has been straightforward about assessing his UConn teams over the years, and he has never backed away from the favorite's role. This year, he really couldn't even if he wanted to.

But he doesn't intend to do that. Go ahead and put the target on the Huskies' backs; they're ready for it.

"Our expectation is to be in the Final Four," Auriemma said. "What happens after that, you can't predict. But I like our chances."

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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