Connecticut’s return to the Big East last year carried with it both opportunity and frustration for the other members of the conference.
A standard-bearer is a valuable thing for the Big East — the same way it has been for women’s basketball as a whole during the Geno Auriemma era in Storrs. But with the presence of the Huskies comes the lion’s share of the attention, directed toward that team and away from the capable group making up the rest of the conference.
“I think we just use it as fuel to the fire,” Villanova forward Maddy Siegrist said about the focus on the Huskies. “It’s definitely exciting to have a team of that caliber, and they have been successful for so long. With that said, you know I feel like people are always one way or the other way. They either hate UConn or love them.”
The Big East put just two teams — UConn and Marquette — in the NCAA Tournament last season but easily could have added three more, with Seton Hall, DePaul and Siegrist’s Villanova all in serious contention for bids.
The 6-foot-1 Siegrist could have the Wildcats back in the mix this year; the junior has put up absolutely monstrous numbers after starring at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie, New York.
As a redshirt freshman, 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. By last season, her sophomore campaign, she was a known quantity to her opponents, and yet her numbers 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 climbed, so did her assist percentage, and she improved her steal percentage from 1.3 to 2.1.
“She’s one of the hardest players to guard in our league,” said Marquette coach Megan Duffy. “… She just has an incredible motor to her game first, which means she’s always moving, she’s always playing extremely hard. And then with her size and skill set, she can go inside, she can go off the bounce, she’s improved every year incrementally as a 3-point shooter.”
Her shot chart from CBBAnalytics reflects this reality, that essentially everywhere on the floor, she’s a threat. Even that lone cold spot on corner threes is likely a statistical anomaly — it included just nine attempts last season.
For a player like Siegrist, the game plan for opponents is pretty simple.
“You’ve got to hope a little bit she misses during a game,” Duffy said. “I know for us, we just try and throw bodies around her, and it’s a challenge. Sometimes we’ve had conversations [where] if we can keep her to 20 or so, we feel like it’s a victory.”
Seton Hall coach Tony Bozzella sees Siegrist in the mold of Breanna Stewart, noting that once she gets her 3-point accuracy up above, say, 42 percent, she’ll get more attention from WNBA scouts. And he would know: There have been reps from the Chicago Sky at his practices, too, with a pair of Seton Hall guards drawing particular notice.
The first is Andra Espinoza-Hunter, who found her form playing for the Pirates after stops at UConn and Mississippi State. She scored 18.6 points per game last season, shooting 41.4 percent overall and 39.1 percent from three, the latter coming on 7.5 attempts per game. The 5-foot-11 senior has a classic WNBA 2 guard build, and her high-level perimeter shooting will play. To Bozzella, it’s more about polishing the secondary aspects of her game now.
“Andra has made her game a little more complete,” Bozzella said. “She’s rebounded the ball better, she’s paid much more attention to defense … but she’s also got a low post-up game, and her midrange game has really been elevated. Obviously, she’s one of the best 3-point shooters in the country. So I think if she can maintain that strength and continue to improve on what she did … I think she’s no doubt a draft choice.”
Then there’s her backcourt mate, Lauren Park-Lane, who has designs on playing at the WNBA level even though she stands just 5-foot-6.
“In our recent scrimmages, I was playing a couple of times off the ball as well,” Park-Lane said. “In practice, we do that a lot. … It’s actually opened up a lot of opportunities for us. … I’ve always had the ability to score and create for my teammates, but being able to come off screens and make shots, that’s really what they do.”
Park-Lane’s bread and butter remains her ball distribution skills. Among conference returnees, only Georgetown’s Kelsey Ransom, another underappreciated Big East star, topped Park-Lane’s 30.2 assist percentage last season. Both finished ahead of UConn’s Paige Bueckers, incidentally.
“People say Lauren’s too small,” Bozzella said. “But certainly, she’s no different than [Aari McDonald].” Dana Evans, too, came up as a recent comp.
The conference has plenty of star power in the post, too. Mary Baskerville of Providence posted a block percentage of 7.9 percent last season, and the 6-foot-3 senior returns to patrol the middle for the Friars. Then there’s 6-foot-2 Lauren Van Kleunen of Marquette, who expanded her game as a senior last year and knows the way forward is to continue doing so as the Golden Eagles weather the loss of Selena Lott.
“To not be one-dimensional, I think that’s the biggest thing in college basketball,” Van Kleunen said. “You know, you’re good at one thing, continue to grow your game. So I think that’s something that I’ve really been able to work on this past season.”
So even as she looks to stretch the floor from three, Van Kleunen sees the in-between as her next area for growth.
“Being able to step out is huge,” she said. “… Continuing to develop my game is, I think, important for myself to just to have that confidence going to each and every game that I’ve gotten the reps, I’ve put the work in, and I know I’m comfortable and confident doing it.”
Despite all this talent well beyond the UConn borders, people like Villanova coach Denise Dillon believe it will take Big East teams beating the powerhouse for those outside the league to truly appreciate its depth of talent. That’s not outside the realm of possibility: Though the Huskies did not lose any league games during their seven years in the American Athletic Conference nor in last season’s Big East slate, they used to lose regularly in the old Big East.
“I think when we shrink the scoring gap, it helps even more,” Dillon said. “That’s the challenge that I put in front of our team. … But until we shrink that gap, yeah, it’s going to be tough to gain that credibility, national recognition.”