Connecticut may be the knee-jerk response for any casual observer asked to name the best Big East women’s basketball, but don’t be fooled – this league is deep. Last year the Big East sent eight teams to the NCAA tournament, and it already has seven in the AP’s first top-25 poll this season.

Watching the rivalry unfold between Connecticut and Rutgers will be the most exciting story of the season. Though Rutgers lost to Connecticut in both of their regular-season match-ups, which gave the Huskies the Big East regular-season title, the Scarlet Knights won when it mattered in the Big East championship game. Rutgers went on to play in the final game of the NCAA tournament, losing the national championship to Tennessee, while Connecticut’s season ended in the Elite Eight. Both teams have the firepower and talent to push their way through to the Final Four this year.

Breaking Down the Big East from First to Worst

1. Connecticut

The Huskies find themselves in familiar territory at No. 2 in the AP’s preseason rankings and atop the Big East preseason coaches’ poll. All five of their 2006-07 starters are returning, and they all had double-digit scoring averages last season. Although sophomore center Tina Charles, last year’s conference rookie of the year, had offseason shoulder surgery, she’s expected to be back on top of her game and has already played in two of UConn’s preseason exhibitions. The Huskies’ biggest problem is simply managing all their talent as they figure out how to fit in forward Maya Moore, the nation’s No. 1 high school recruit according to the recruiting Web site scout.com.

2. Rutgers

Rutgers, the 2007 national runner-up, had its moment in the sun spoiled by Don Imus, but if that controversy has taught us anything, it is this: Don’t mess with Head Coach C. Vivian Stringer. The Scarlet Knights (No. 3 AP) return all five of their starters from last year, including standouts Essence Carson, a consensus all-Big East preseason team selection, and the 6-foot-4 Kia Vaughn, who had 92 blocks and averaged 12.8 points and 9.3 rebounds last season.

3. West Virginia

No. 18 West Virginia finished fourth in the Big East last year without its best player, senior forward Meg Bulger, who was sidelined for a year and a half with knee injuries. With her back, the Mountaineers have a good chance to do better than their second-round appearance in the NCAA tournament last year. West Virginia also returns a trio of seniors who started every game and averaged over 10 points per game each with Olayinka Sanni, LaQuita Owens and Chakhia Cole.

4. Pittsburgh

Head Coach Agnus Berenato has done a phenomenal job turning around the Panthers in her four years at the helm. Pitt has consistently improved since she came on board, going from 6-20 in 2003-04 to 13-15 in 2004-05, to 22-11 in 2005-06, and then to 24-9 last year, when the Panthers finally earned their school’s first-ever appearance in the women’s NCAA tournament. This year the No. 20 Panthers, led by senior center Marcedes Walker (15.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg) and junior guard Shavonte Zellous (19.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg), are a legitimate threat.

5. Notre Dame

The No. 24 Fighting Irish were underestimated at the beginning of last season: They were ranked 11th in the Big East coaches’ preseason poll but went on to make the NCAA tournament, where they played a closely fought game with No. 1-seed UNC. Head Coach Muffet McGraw is a proven winner, having coached Notre Dame to the 2001 NCAA championship, and with senior guard Charel Allen (17 ppg, 6.2 rpg), the Irish have what it takes to continue where they left off last season.

6. Louisville

The No. 21 Cardinals’ new coach Jeff Walz begins his first year in a head coaching job, but he’s not green. As an assistant at Maryland he helped lead the Terrapins to the NCAA championship in 2006. Plus, Walz has the luxury of creating plays around standout junior forward Angel McCoughtry (21.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg). His other priority will be developing the game of 6-foot-3 sophomore center Chauntise Wright, who wasn’t ready to start any games last season but has plenty of potential.

7. DePaul

Head Coach Doug Bruno’s team is known for its high-scoring offense, and with seniors Allie Quigley (15.8 ppg) and Caprice Smith (15.3 ppg) leading the way, it looks like the Blue Demons will continue to keep opposing defenses on their toes. But if DePaul wants to be a contender, it has to keep its players healthy. All but two of its players had to sit out with an injury at some point last season.

8. Marquette

The Golden Eagles won a school-record 26 games last season, finishing third in the conference standings and reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament. The problem is, four of last year’s starters graduated. Can 2006-07 Big East Head Coach of the Year Terri Mitchell lead Marquette back to the top?

9. USF

South Florida lost forward Jessica Dickson, probably the best player in the program’s history, to graduation and the WNBA at the end of last year. Junior guard Shantia Grace, who averaged 14.4 points last year, looks to pick up the slack, but she’ll have her hands full with an otherwise inexperienced starting lineup.

10. Seton Hall

With only one returning player who averaged in the double-digits, senior guard Ela Mukosiej (11.8 ppg), the Pirates are hoping that rookie guard Ebonie Williams, the Washington Post’s 2007 high school player of the year, will be ready for action.

11. St. John’s

The Red Storm failed to meet expectations after its 22-8 season and NCAA tournament appearance in 2005-06, finishing at 8-20 last year. Since all five of their starters have returned, St. John’s is hoping that the hard knocks are behind them.

12. Villanova

For the Wildcats, the difference between a mediocre season and a good season depends on X-factor Laura Kurz. The junior forward transferred to ‘Nova from Duke after the Blue Devils played for the national championship in 2006 because she wanted more playing time.

13. Syracuse

The good news: Syracuse is Georgetown’s home-and-away conference matchup, and the Orange has finished in the bottom three in the Big East for the past four seasons. The bad news: Georgetown had another not-so-tough home-and-away opponent in Cincinnati last year, and the Bearcats won both of those games.

14. Cincinnati

Cincinnati has had a rocky two seasons since it joined the Big East, finishing 11th both years, but the Bearcats are looking to turn it around with new Head Coach J. Kelley Hall, who led the University of Louisiana-Lafayette to 25 wins and a spot in the NCAA tournament last year.

15. Providence

Although Providence only won three Big East games last year, one of them was a double-overtime thriller over then-No. 13 Louisville.

16. Georgetown

For a team that finished 13-16 overall but only 3-13 in the Big East last year, the Hoyas’ biggest question is whether they can step up when conference play starts.

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