As the two-time defending national champions with the national player of the year in senior guard Diana Taurasi, the Connecticut Huskies are, under the direction of head coach Geno Auriemma, once again the favorites to win both the Big East and NCAA titles.

Led by Taurasi, the Huskies have all of their 2002-03 players returning. Taurasi, who can play any position and led UConn in scoring (17.9), rebounding (6.1) and assists (4.4) last year, is the heart of the team and all success centers on her. Splitting time in the backcourt with Taurasi will be senior Maria Conlon, junior Ashley Battle and sophomore guard Ann Strother who, with Taurasi, was named a preseason candidates for the 2003-04 Women’s Naismith College Basketball Player the Year Award. Last season Conlon averaged 6.9 points and made 54 three-pointers. Battle, who was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, averaged 8.3 points off the bench, along with 5.4 rebounds. Strother, who played in all of UConn’s games last season, averaged 10.1ppg and 3.1apg.

Playing in the frontcourt, junior center Jessica Moore and sophomore forward Barbara Turner will also see significant playing time. Moore, with Strother, played in all 38 of UConn’s games last season and was second on the team in both scoring (10.6) and rebounding (5.9). Turner, who garnered All-Big East Rookie honors, also had strong numbers, averaging 10.0ppg and 5.8rpg.

Winning 31 consecutive games as they increased their undefeated streak to a NCAA-record 70 straight games last year, the Huskies suffered their only loss of the season to Villanova in the Big East final. With all players now one year more experienced, there is almost nothing that can stop the Huskies from once again winning it all.

– Brenna McGee

Rutgers

Led by one of the top guards in the nation in junior Cappie Pondexter, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights hope to build on the tremendous success of last year with an even better showing in 2003-04. In the most dramatic turnaround in Division I, the Knights finished 21-8 last year and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament after finishing just 9-20 in 2001-02.

Pondexter, who was named Big East Rookie of the Year last season, as well as a member of the All-Big East First Team, will again be the heart of the Knights team. Leading the team with 18.3 points per game and second in rebounds (5.1) and three-point percentage (.358), the success of Rutgers in 2003-04 will hinge on the success of Pondexter.

Also returning from last year’s team are seniors Dawn cCullouch at guard and leading rebounder Shalicia Hurns (7.1rpg) at forward. Each of these players, with size and speed, can contribute considerable points to the offense. Also look for junior guard Chelsea Newton to have a big impact. Last season Newton led the Knights in three-point percentage (.429) and is one of the best defenders on the team.

In this year’s preseason polls the Knights are ranked second in the Big East behind only Connecticut, the two-time defending national champions, and 17th overall in the nation by the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Watch for Rutgers to make a big showing in the NCAA tournament in 2003-04.

– Brenna McGee

Notre Dame

After another successful season that saw the Notre Dame Fighting Irish advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth time in seven years and the NCAA tournament for eight straight years, the Irish in 2003-04 are hungry to return to the top of the Big East and the nation. Since winning the national title in 2001, Notre Dame has had to watch conference rival Connecticut take the NCAA title the last two years, but the Irish are ready to change things up in 2003-04.

Under the direction of head coach Muffet McGraw, now entering her 17th year at Notre Dame, the Irish have put together 10 consecutive 20-win seasons and hope this year will continue the tradition. Entering the season as the third ranked team in the Big East in the preseason coaches poll, as well as 16th in the nation by the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, Notre Dame has four of their starters returning, including six of their top seven scorers, and look to only improve as this young team develops.

Led by junior forward Jacqueline Batteast, last season’s top scorer (13.9) and rebounder (8.3), the Irish have a dominant frontcourt. Playing with Batteast is sophomore forward Courtney LaVere, last year’s second-leading scorer (12.4) and rebounder (5.6), as well as a member of the Big East All-Rookie Team. Both players have excellent ball-handling and shooting abilities that, with another year of experience, only look to make Notre Dame stronger.

Playing behind Batteast and LaVere are two experienced guards in senior La’Tania Severe and sophomore Megan Duffy. Both played in all 32 games last year and will make big contributions to the Irish offense this season.

Although Connecticut is the heavy favorite to repeat as national champions, look for Notre Dame to make a big run in the Big Dance. If the team can find the right chemistry early in the season there is very little to get in their way.

– Brenna McGee

Virginia Tech

As the fourth ranked team in the Big East in the preseason coaches poll and 29th in the nation based on votes received in the preseason ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, the Virginia Tech Hokies have a lot to prove in 2003-04. After a highly successful season last year that saw the Hokies to their second straight NCAA tournament appearance and their sixth consecutive 20-win season, there is great pressure on the 10 returning letter winners and three returning starters to keep the streaks alive.

The Hokies are led by senior forward Ieva Kublina, a selection to the 2002-03 All-Big East First Team and the conference’s leading shot blocker (1.94). At 6-4, Kublina is dominant on the post and looks to have another standout season, improving on her 15.0 points per game and 7.4 rebounds per game from last year.

Joining Kublina on the post will be forwards junior Erin Gibson and sophomore Kerri Gardin. Gibson, a starter in 30 of the Hokies 32 games last season, brings experience and strong numbers to the floor, including 9.7ppg and 7.0rpg. Gardin also saw considerable playing time last year and looks to improve on her 4.3ppg and 3.2rpg in the upcoming year.

In the backcourt the Hokies will look to a pair of sophomores in Carrie Mason and Fran Recchia. Mason, a Big East All-Rookie selection in 2002-03, was the team’s third-leading scorer with 11.4ppg and Recchia, who averaged 4.9ppg last year, will have improved numbers as her playing time increases.

Watch for Virginia Tech in the spring to cause some upsets on their way to their third-straight NCAA tournament appearance.

– Brenna McGee

Boston College

The Eagles’ will return to the court after completing their most successful season in program history. Of course, they’ll be without the three strong fifth-year senior starters who led them to their first Sweet 16 in school history.

Head Coach Cathy Inglese led the Eagles to a third place finish in the Big East last season, at 22-9 overall and a 12-4 conference record.

Inglese’s roster will offer her plenty of options, with senior center Maureen Leahy as the only returning frontcourt player with any experience. Leahy made five starts, averaging three points and 2.1 rebounds in 28 games.

Boston College looks stronger on the backcourt, where senior Amber Jacobs and junior Jessalyn Deveny leading the way. Deveny, a versatile player with a good outside shot and strong passing abilities, was named second team all-conference and honored as the Big East Most Improved Player after averaging a team-best 16.9 points and 5.9 rebounds. Jacobs started 30 games, averaging 12.1 points, nailing game-winning baskets in back-to-back NCAA wins at Old Dominion and Vanderbilt.

Junior Clare Droesch offered a burst off the bench, averaging 7.4 points and hitting 42 three-pointers last year. Look for Droesch to develop as an outside-shooter and start more games this season.

Sophomore forwards Brooke Queenan and Nicole Warren saw playing time in 14 and 8 games, respectively, and sophomore center Lisa acchia (18 games) should step up to make things happen for the BC squad this season.

Frosh prospects include forwards Kathrin Ress and Emily Vogts. Also, sophomores Aja Parham and Christine Smith should see increased play time over last year.

The Eagles kick off the season Nov. 22 at home against Oakland and face the Hoyas at McDonough Gymnasium on Feb. 11 and in Boston on March 2.

– Nick Timiraos

Miami

Making their first NCAA tournament appearance last year since 1998, the Miami Hurricanes are looking to continue the success of last season in 2003-04. With four of their starters returning, and 10 letter winners overall, including six of their top seven scorers, the ‘Canes are poised to make a run in the NCAA tournament.

Leading Miami is sophomore winger Tamara James who, as a freshman, was the Big East’s leading scorer and the top-scoring rookie in the nation with 21.0 points per game. Jones also led Miami with seven double-doubles on the season and earned Big East Rookie of the Week five times. This preseason she was named to the Street & Smith’s Women’s Basketball All-America Honorable Mention list, to go along with being named to the All-Big East Rookie and Second Teams and the All-American Honorable Mention list last spring.

Leading the ‘Canes in the backcourt is junior guard Yolanda McCormick. Starting every game last season, McCormick averaged 10.2 points, 6.0 assists and 3.2 steals per game. Playing with her, senior guard Hutashi Wilson can expect to see more minutes and increased production.

Up front, senior forwards Chanivia Broussard and Shaquana Wilkins will lead the Hurricanes. Averaging 9.4 and 8.5ppg respectively, Miami will look for increased production from both. Head coach Ferne Labati, entering her 16th year at Miami, will also look for forwards senior Vera Arsova and junior Melissa Knight to step up and contribute this year.

Voted to finish 6th in the Big East in the preseason coaches poll, the ‘Canes will need to improve on their 18-13 overall 2002-03 record to achieve that goal. After their first round exit in the 2003 NCAA tournament, Miami is hungry and has the tools to leave its mark on the national level.

– Brenna McGee

Villanova

Last season will be a hard act to follow for the Wildcats, whose best season in school history included a Big East championship, a No. 2 seed in NCAA play and an Elite Eight finish. And despite losing three of their top four scorers, a talented sophomore rookie and an honorable mention All-Big East performer will make Villanova a formidable threat against the top teams this season.

Harry Perretta celebrated his 25th year leading the Wildcats with the most victories in program history, with a 28-6 overall record and 12-4 conference record.

Senior Courtney Mix returns as a four year starter who averaged 9.4 points and led the team in rebounds (7.2), assists (4.8), steals (1.9) and blocks (1.1). An honorable mention All-Big East player, Mix can play well both as a point guard or as a frontcourt performer.

Sophomore rookie Liad Suez practiced with the team last season but was ineligible to play with the team after arriving from Israel. Suez, as multidimensional a player as Mix, will spend most of her time as forward.

Senior Kelly Nash and sophomore Jenna Viani will split the role of shooting guard, playing 32 and 30 games, respectively. Nash averaged 3.6 points.

Junior center Jana Rediger and sophomore Kate Dessart Mager will take the backcourt. Rediger started 19 games, averaging two points and 3.1 rebounds and Dessart Mager averaged 2.7 points and 2.1 rebounds last year as a rookie.

Look for sophomore Betsy McManus to compete with Mix for time as point guard. Sophomore Jackie Adamshick and junior Jennifer Hilgenberg will need to post solid numbers as forwards for the team to maintain its momentum from their landmark 2002-03 season.

Villanova kicks off their season tomorrow against Louisiana State at the New Mexico tournament. The Wildcats face off against the Hoyas in McDonough Gymnasium on Jan. 31.

– Nick Timiraos

West Virginia

With four starters returning to Morgantown, this year’s West Virginia women’s basketball team hopes to improve on last season’s 15-13 record. For the first time in school history, last year’s squad finished undefeated in non-conference play, beating Bucknell, Ohio and Dusquesne en route to that 11-0 finish. Big East play, however, did not treat the ountaineers quite so kindly, as they finished the season with a 4-12 record, losing to Virginia Tech in the first round of the conference tournament.

The West Virginia squad is full of seasoned players, with 10 letter winners returning to the court, including senior guard Kate Bulger, junior point guard Yolanda Paige and senior guard Sherell Sowho. A third team All-Big East selection last year, Bulger averaged 15.8 points per game, and ranked third in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage (77-164, 47.0%). Paige chipped in just over 10 points per game and, with 7.1, earned the No. 6 spot among all Division I players in assists. At 12.3, Sowho was the ountaineer’s second leading scorer and helped lead the team’s defensive charge.

Promising newcomers who can expect to see significant time in their first year at Morgantown include Bulger’s younger sister Meg, a 6-0 freshman guard, and Yelena Leuchanka, a 6-5 center and former standout at Wabash Junior College originally from Belarus.

In his two years at West Virginia, head coach Mike Carey has led his team through .500 plus seasons and hopes to continue the ountaineers’ upward swing.

– Mary Goundrey

Seton Hall

Advancing to postseason play for the first time since 1995 last year, the 2003-04 Seton Hall Pirates look to build on the success of last season with the return of three of their four leading scorers and 10 letter winners overall. Under the direction of head coach Phyllis Mangina, who is entering her 19th season at Seton Hall, the Pirates hope to advance past the first round of the WNIT and improve on their 14-15 record overall this year.

Led by seniors forward Charlene Thomas and guard Melissa Langelier, last year’s leading scorer and three-point shooters respectively, the Pirates have a solid base to build on this season. Junior swing Ashley Bush, the Pirate’s best defensive player and leading rebounder, and senior LaNedra Brown, this season’s probable starting center, will both be expected to step up and fill the void left by the departures of Leslie Ardon, Cecilia Lindqvist and Simona Burgess.

With the return of senior Tine Duelund, who missed the majority of last season due to illness, and the addition of sophomore transfer Cortne Ellis from Michigan State along with four freshmen, including Che’la Turner, the 2003 Gatorade Player of the Year, and Heta Korpivaara, a member of the Finland National Team, the Pirates have a abundance of new talent with which to work with this season.

Seton Hall was picked to finish 10th in the Big East in the preseason coaches poll, but the Pirates could be a surprise team in 2003-04. Look for the Pirates to make a run late in the season on their way to another WNIT appearance in the spring.

– Brenna McGee

Syracuse

After a disappointing 10-18 finish last season, things may turn around this year for the Orangewomen. The team brings a mix of the old and the new. To start, the team returns eight letterwinners, including all five starters. Senior guard Julie McBride will lead the team from the point position and is coming off a successful season that saw her average 15.6 points per game and drain 71 three-pointers, enough to put her on the All-Big East second team. Backing her up will be two juniors, Rochelle Coleman and April Jean, versatile players who can be effective either in the guard position or down at the post. Sophomore Tierra Jackson and senior Chineze Nwagbo will also see time in the forward position. While the team has a credible presence in the paint, most of their talent lies in the backcourt, with McBride controlling the action.

The team will be commandeered from the sidelines by a new coach, Keith Cieplicki, who coached Vermont from 1997-2003. The Orangewomen hope that the new face at the top will bring energy to what was a deflated and inexperienced team last year. Even though the team was predicted to finish in 11th in the conference, the combination of veteran leadership in McBride and new energy and leadership from Cieplicki, Syracuse has the potential to rise above their ranking and make a name for itself in the conference.

– Michael Grendell

Pittsburgh

This season looks to be a rebuilding year for the Pittsburgh Panthers. With only one returning starter and a new head coach, the Panthers are looking to distance themselves from last year’s disappointing 12-16 season, where they went only 4-12 in the Big East.

New head coach Agnus Berenato, who spent the last 15 years at Georgia Tech and compiled a 223-209 (.516) overall record, took the Yellow Jackets to the NCAA tournament in both 2002 and 2003 and hopes to bring that success with her to Pittsburgh.

Junior guard Amy Kunich is the only returning starter for the Panthers. Averaging 6.9 points, 3.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game in 2002-03, Kunich will be counted on to carry much of the scoring responsibilities this season. Sophomore guards Jessica Allen and Shavon Earp will split time in the backcourt with Kunich, after coming off the bench as rookies last year. Each of these players will have to put up big numbers in 2003-04 if the Panthers hope to finish above 11th in the conference this year.

In the front court, senior forwards LaToya Kincaid and Sheila Stufflet will be starting for the first time at Pittsburgh. Both players should see their numbers increase dramatically as they get more playing time. Junior center Allisha Morris will also see an increase in minutes to help her 1.6 points and 1.4 rebounds per game.

Look for Pittsburgh to improve their record and move up in the Big East standings this season as Berenato becomes familiar with her new team and the players develop team chemistry.

– Brenna McGee

St. John’s

In the tough Big East conference, the St. John’s Red Storm often find itself overmatched. Finishing last in the league the past two seasons, including going just 8-19 last year, the Red Storm are looking to turn things around in 2003-04. Now in her second year, head coach Kim Barnes Arico has nine returning letter winners, including all five of last years starters, to build her program around.

At the heart of the Red Storm are senior guards Danielle Rainey and Shemika Stevens. Both Rainey and Stevens were double-digit scorers last season with Rainey leading the team overall in scoring (16.4) and rebounding (4.9). As part of a suspension from last year, Rainey will be forced to sit the first three games of this season, so leadership, at least initially, will fall to Stevens. Starting every game for the Red Storm last season, Stevens averaged 13.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assist per game last year, and she should be able to contribute big numbers to the team once again this year.

In the frontcourt, St. John’s is led by senior center Katalin Kurtosi who, at 6-4, can dominate the boards. For the Red Storm to have any success, Kurtosi will have to increase her production from last year, improving her 4.0ppg and 3.9rpg. The Red Storm will also need better numbers from senior forwards Crystal Andrews and Nora Gyuris. Appearing in all 27 contests last year, Andrews averaged 4.3ppg and 3.5rpg, while Gyuris had only 2.8ppg and 1.4rpg.

– Brenna McGee

Providence

The Friars are looking for a miracle this season. Bumped to last place in the Big East Coaches’ preseason poll and coming off a 9-18 season (3-13 in conference play), Providence is just looking to stay afloat. Head coach Susan Yow is in her second season with the Friars. This year, the 20-year veteran of Division I basketball must grapple with the unexpected loss of her top three scorers, all of whom left the team for personal reasons.

Providence does have one strength: its backcourt. Senior forward Brooke Freeburg, the leading returning scorer (9.2 ppg), will move from guard to forward. She and junior point guard Keisha Blackwell are the only returning players who started in every game last season and Yow is looking to them for team leadership and offensive action.

Providence may also see a glimmer of hope in junior forward Gayle Nwafili, an expected starter who put up big numbers in the Friars’ first exhibition game this year. Scoring a career-high 18 points against Bryant in October, a significant increase over her previous 11-point record, Nwafili could be one to watch.

The Friars will also depend heavily on junior forward/center Quiana Copeland, who had a team-high 23 blocks last season, to fill in the center court.

– Amanda McGrath

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