November 5, 2021 

2021-22 BIG EAST preview

Uconn still the top dog, but BIG EAST talent runs deeper than Storrs

College basketball is back and the Connecticut Huskies find themselves in a familiar position — atop the BIG EAST conference standings. The conference preseason coaches’ poll gave fans a first glimpse of how the standings could shake out this season.

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The defending BIG EAST champs UConn are the unanimous favorite to clinch the conference title. Six-time BIG EAST regular-season champion DePaul is predicted to finish 2nd followed by the Seton Hall Pirates (3rd), Marquette Golden Eagles (4rd) and Villanova Wildcats (5th). Creighton is slotted to finished 6th followed by St. John’s at 7th and Providence at 8th. Georgetown (9th), Xavier (10th) and Butler (11th) round out the remaining positions in the poll.

BIG EAST teams were well-represented in the 2020-21 post season. Three teams (Creighton, DePaul, Villanova) clinched spots in the postseason WNIT and two teams (Uconn and Marquette) advanced the the NCAA tournament. What can fans expect from top teams in the unofficial 6th Power Conference this season?  

Connecticut remains the beast of the east

UConn has been utterly dominant in conference play over the past decade. After leaving the BIG EAST for the American Athletic Conference (AAC) after the 2012-13 season, the Huskies proceeded to win seven consecutive AAC regular season titles and seven consecutive AAC tournament titles. They competed seven seasons without losing a single game in AAC conference play. Upon re-joining the BIG EAST for the 2020-21 season, Geno Auriemma’s squad sustained that excellence. The Huskies went 18-0 in conference play and clinched a remarkable 19th BIG EAST title. Uconn has not lost a conference game since the 2013 BIG EAST tournament finals against Notre Dame.

The Huskies are talented and have an even more loaded roster this year than they did last year. The Huskies return all five starters from their Final Four roster last season, including Paige Bueckers. Bueckers had a breakout year and became the first freshman ever to win the AP Player of the Year award. Uconn also returns Evina Westbrook, who opted to return for an additional season of eligibility instead of opting into the WNBA draft. Westbrook is a leader and calming veteran presence for this Uconn team. The redshirt senior shared the news of her return to the Huskies in an Instagram post with the caption “Unfinished business…”

Auriemma also welcomes the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class per ESPN Hoopgurlz to Storrs with the additions of Azzi Fudd, Caroline Ducharme, Amari DeBerry and Saylor Poffenbarger. Fudd is the number one recruit in the nation and is a generational talent. She joins Uconn senior guard Christyn Williams on the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award watch list.

Fudd teaming up with friend and former teammate Bueckers is an exciting prospect to keep your eye on if you’re a basketball fan, and a scary thing to consider if you’re one of Uconn’s opponents.

DePaul looks to rebound

Perhaps DePaul alum Allie Quigley and the Chicago Sky brought some magic back to Wintrust Arena this summer. The arena hosts both the DePaul Blue Demons and the 2021 WNBA national champion Chicago Sky. Last season, though, the arena was home to a rare down season from Doug Bruno‘s DePaul squad, which missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. The Blue Demons lost in the first round of the WNIT following a disappointing defeat to Villanova in the BIG EAST tournament.

DePaul returns all five starters from the 2021-22 season, which they finished with a 11-5 BIG EAST regular season record. Senior guards Sonya Morris and Lexi Held are part of the preseason All-BIG EAST team and look to provide veteran leadership to this year’s squad. As a junior Morris led the Blue Demons in scoring at 19.3 points per game and ranked 11th in the nation in free throw percentage (.883). Held is an offensive threat who averaged 16.5 points a game as a junior and was fifth in the nation in total steals.

Women’s basketball fans are accustomed to seeing DePaul women’s basketball compete at high levels in the NCAA tournament, including four Sweet Sixteen appearances (2006, 2011, 2014, 2016). Don’t be surprised to see DePaul live up to their high preseason poll ranking (2nd).

Seton Hall star power

Seton Hall finished the 2020-21 season with a disappointing upset loss to Creighton in the BIG EAST tournament quarterfinals. Preseason All-BIG EAST team selections Lauren Park-Lane (junior) and Andra Espinoza-Hunter (grad) look to lead the Pirates to the top of the BIG EAST standings this season.

Park-Lane is coming off of a red-hot sophomore campaign where she was named BIG EAST Most Improved Player. The point guard jumped from 6.7 points to 17.4 points per game between her freshman and sophomore seasons. She also finished last season averaging 5.8 assists per game, good for second in the conference. Park-Lane has earned national recognition on the Nancy Lieberman Award watch list.

Espinoza-Hunter is a graduate transfer playing her second season with the Pirates. Last season she led all Seton Hall scorers with 18.6 points per game, fourth in the BIG EAST Conference. She also led the conference with 2.9 made three-pointers per game in addition to pulling down 6.1 boards per game. Espinoza-Hunter has a versatile game, one that head coach Tony Bozzella thinks could succeed at the next level.

“We had a scout from the Chicago Sky come in and watch our practice and he gave us some great feedback on all our players,” Bozzella said to The Next‘s Howard Megdal during BIG EAST media day. “Andra has made her game a little more complete. She’s rebounded the ball better; she’s paid much more attention in defense, so she’s done a great job on that. But she’s also got a low post-up game and her mid-range game has really been elevated; and obviously she’s one of the best three point shooters in the country. So I think if she can maintain that strength and continue to improve…I think she’s no doubt a [WNBA] draft choice.”

How far can Seton Hall’s stars take them this season?

Look out for Siegrist

Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist is a force that BIG EAST opponents will need to reckon with. The 6’1″ forward started all 24 games for the Wildcats last season and registered a BIG EAST-best 13 double-doubles. She averaged nearly a double-double with 22.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in 34.6 minutes per game. Siegrist was also named a finalist for the 2021 Katrina McClain award, which recognizes the top power forward in women’s college basketball.

“A player like Maddy aspires to be pro when she talks about leading her team to the NCAA tournament,” Villanova head coach Denise Dillon told The Next. “Maddy is a worker and she’s relentless in that area. So I feel that she’s just tapping into her potential. We all know that she can shoot the ball and score but there’s so much more she can offer to the game.”

The Wildcats finished with a 17-7 overall and 9-5 BIG EAST record last season. They defeated DePaul in the conference tournament to advance to the program’s first BIG EAST tournament semifinal since 2015. Their season ended with a 77-70 third-round loss to Delaware in the postseason WNIT.

Siegrist is looking to help Villanova to the NCAA tournament this year and her knack for double-double performances might just help them get there.

Conference schedule

There is a lot of talent to watch this season so keep your eye on the BIG EAST schedule. Conference play begins on December 3rd. The conference will play a 110-game regular-season schedule with all 11 teams playing 20 league games including a home and away match-up with each opponent.

The 2021-22 BIG EAST tournament is scheduled for March 4-7, 2022 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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