Conference expected to be challenging once again
NEW YORK — Thirteen postseason berths in 2009, two teams in the NCAA National Championship and a squad that went a perfect 39-0 last season en route to its fifth national title in the past decade.
Welcome to women's basketball in the Big East Conference.
After last year's perfect campaign, Connecticut was unanimously selected by the coaches to repeat as conference champion this season. The Huskies' junior All-American Maya Moore was also named Preseason Player of the Year.
The coaches picked Rutgers, entering the year with a lineup devoid of center Kia Vaughn, forward Heather Zurich and guard Epiphanny Prince, to finish sixth.
"When you lose everything at one time, it is difficult," said Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer in a statement. "We have faced challenges before but none like this, losing both the interior and the perimeter."
Stringer did not attend the event due to a death in the family, and was replaced by associate head coach Carlene Mitchell.
"As coach Stringer preaches, it's not where you start, it's where you finish," Mitchell said. "We're a great team right now. We might not have the names that everyone is used to us having, but were really excited about this group we've been able to put together."
Playing in the Big East is not something the team plans to take lightly.
"From top to bottom, the league is extremely tough. Think about it: The Big East had teams win both the NCAA Championship and the [Women's National Invitation Tournament]," Stringer said. "And to top that, we had two teams compete for the national title. That is amazing and speaks volumes to the parity of the league."
As one of three seniors on the Knights' roster, senior guard Brittany Ray is ready and willing to take on.
"I had glimpses of [the role] last year; coach Stringer just wanted to know where the leadership was coming from now," Ray said. "I'm familiar with it, so I've been a much more vocal leader on the court and I'm extending myself to all the underclassmen."
Despite her former teammates' off-season departures, Ray and her squad are determined to go out and prove that RU is still a force to be reckoned with.
"It's a very big year for us, because we sort of have a little chip on our shoulder right now," she said. "People have their doubts, but we just want to go out and exceed everyone's expectations."
But no one will receive a bigger trial by fire this year than new Cincinnati head coach Jamelle Elliott. Having played on UConn's 1995 title team and serving as an assistant coach for the Huskies since 1997, Elliott is all too familiar with the rigors of the Big East.
The newcomer receives her conference baptism in January against national runner-up Louisville.
"Well, welcome to the Big East, right? Welcome rookie," Elliott said. "I'm in the best conference in the country and that can be a good or a bad thing. Not many people can say they have a head coaching opportunity in the Big East, but at the same time that can be looked at as ‘Wow, she has her work cut out for her.'"
Despite losing some of its top players to graduation in the off-season, the conference still features some of the biggest names in the country in UConn's Moore, Tina Charles and Tiffany Hayes.
Notre Dame, tabbed as second in the preseason rankings, sports two preseason All-Big East selections heading into the year, as well as freshman Skylar Diggins, who was named Preseason Freshman of the Year.
"I think every year [the conference loses] really good players who become pros, and yet every year we have new players who are going to become pros. It's a constant stream of good talent coming in and good talent leaving," said Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw. "I would see this as a year where we're going to take seven, eight or even nine teams to the NCAA Tournament."