Connecticut’s return to the Great East last year brought with it both opportunity and frustration for the other conference members.
A standard-bearer is valuable to the Great East – just as it was to women’s basketball as a whole during the Geno Auriemma era in Storrs. But with the presence of the Huskies, the bulk of the attention comes, focused on that team and away from the capable group that makes up the rest of the conference.
“I think we’ll just use it as fuel for the fire,” Villanova forward Maddy Siegrist said of the focus on the Huskies. “It’s absolutely exciting to have a team of that caliber, and they’ve been successful for so long. That said, you know I feel like people are always one way or another. They either hate UConn or love them.”
The Big East only fielded two teams — UConn and Marquette — in the NCAA tournament last season, but could have easily added three more, with Seton Hall, DePaul and Siegrist’s Villanova all seriously fighting for bids.
The 6-foot-1 Siegrist could have the Wildcats in the mix again this year; the junior put down absolutely monstrous numbers after starring at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie, New York.
As a freshman in the red shirt, Siegrist scored 18.8 points per game and grabbed 8.9 rebounds, shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from three. Last season, her sophomore season, she was a known amount to her opponents, yet her tally improved across the board to 22.8 points and 9.8 rebounds, 48.3 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three. . Even as her usage rate increased, so did her assist rate, improving her steal rate from 1.3 to 2.1.
“She’s one of the hardest players to guard in our league,” said Marquette coach Megan Duffy. “…She has an incredible motor in her game at first, which means she’s always on the move, she’s always playing extremely hard. And with her size and skills, she can go in, she can go off the bounce, she’s incrementally improving every year as a three-point shooter.
Her CBBanalytics shot card reflects this reality, that she is a threat essentially all over the floor. Even that lone cold spot on corner threes is probably a statistical anomaly – it only included nine tries last season.
For a player like Siegrist, the game plan for opponents is quite simple.
“You have to hope she misses a little during a match,” Duffy said. “I know for us, we’re just trying to throw bodies around her, and it’s a challenge. Sometimes we had conversations [where] if we can keep her to twenty, we feel like a win.”
Seton Hall coach Tony Bozzella sees Siegrist in the form of Breanna Stewart, noting that once she gets her 3-point accuracy above, say, 42 percent, she’ll get more attention from WNBA scouts. And he would know: There have also been representatives from the Chicago Sky at his practices, with a few Seton Hall guards drawing particular attention.
The first is Andra Espinoza-Hunter, who found her form as a player for the Pirates after making stops at UConn and Mississippi State. She scored 18.6 points per game last season, 41.4 percent overall and 39.1 percent from three, the latter coming in at 7.5 tries per game. The 1-foot-11 senior has a classic WNBA 2 guard build and her high-level perimeter shooting will play. For Bozzella, it’s now more about polishing up the secondary aspects of her game.
“Andra has made her game a little more complete,” said Bozzella. “She’s bounced back better, she’s paid a lot more attention to the defense…but she’s also got a low post-up game and her midrange game has really improved. It’s clear she’s one of the best three-point shooters in the game.” So I think if she can keep that power and keep improving what she did… I think she’s definitely a design choice.”
Then there’s her backcourt partner, Lauren Park-Lane, who has plans to play at WNBA level even though she’s only 5 foot-6.
“In our recent scrimmages, I also played with the ball a few times,” said Park-Lane. “In practice we do that a lot. … It has given us many opportunities. … I’ve always had the ability to score and create for my teammates, but being able to get off screens and take shots is really what they do.”
Park-Lane’s bread and butter continues to her ball distribution skills. Of the conference attendees, only Georgetown’s Kelsey Ransom, another underrated Big East star, surpassed Park-Lane’s assist rate of 30.2 last season. By the way, both finished ahead of UConn’s Paige Bueckers.
“People say Lauren is too small,” Bozzella said. “But sure, she’s no different than… [Aari McDonald].” Dana Evans also emerged as a recent comp.
The conference also has a lot of star power in the post. Providence’s Mary Baskerville posted a 7.9 percent block rate last season and the 6-foot-3 senior returns to patrol the center for the Friars. Then there’s Marquette’s six-foot Lauren Van Kleunen, who expanded her game as a senior last year and knows the way forward is to continue to do so as the Golden Eagles weather the loss of Selena Lott.
“Not to be one-dimensional, I think that’s the most important thing in college basketball,” Van Kleunen said. “You know, you’re good at one thing, keep developing your game. So I think that’s something I’ve really been able to work on over the past season.”
So even if she tries to stretch the floor of three, Van Kleunen sees the gap as her next growth area.
“It’s huge to be able to step out,” she said. “… Continuing to develop my game I think is important for myself to have that confidence to every game I’ve gotten the reps in, I’ve put the work into it and I know I’m comfortable and do it with confidence.”
Despite all this talent stretching far beyond the UConn boundaries, people like Villanova coach Denise Dillon believe it will take Big East teams to beat the powerhouse before those outside the league can truly appreciate the depth of the talent. That’s not out of the realm of possibility: While the Huskies didn’t lose any league games during their seven years in the American Athletic Conference nor in the Big East slate last season, they lost regularly in the old Big East.
“I think it will help even more if we narrow the scoring gap,” said Dillon. “That is the challenge I present to our team. … But until we narrow that gap, yes, it will be difficult to get that credibility, national recognition.”