Women's basketball begins with UConn seeking repeat and stellar freshmen everywhere

Geno Auriemma is used to high expectations at Connecticut. With four starters back from last season's national championship team, an NCAA-record ninth title is within reach.

Last season, Auriemma's squad flew somewhat under the radar — for UConn, anyway — with most of the attention on Brittney Griner and Baylor's quest to go unbeaten again and repeat as champions. Now the target is squarely on the Huskies and sensational sophomore Breanna Stewart.

"We saw what happened last year with Baylor where everyone said, right from the beginning, that they were going to win the national championship," Auriemma said. "It's nice but we can't be putting a lot of stock in it. We'll see if this team is capable of handling (the expectations) or not."

The biggest change for Auriemma's group comes with the conference they are playing in. Realignment has hit women's basketball hard, too, and UConn's rival of the past few years, Notre Dame, left for the ACC. The Big East basketball schools split off from the football programs and formed a new conference keeping the name.

The football schools from the Big East, including Connecticut, added a bunch of other programs forming the American Athletic Conference. Louisville, which lost in the title game to the Huskies last April, will stay in that new league for one year before heading to the ACC.

You need a scorecard to keep track of it all. Only nine of the 32 Division conferences will not have any changes this season or next.

With Skylar Diggins, Elena Delle Donne and Griner gone to the WNBA, new players will step into the national spotlight, including Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike, Baylor's Odyssey Sims and Stewart.

The 6-foot-4 rising star will try to pick up where she left off seven months ago as the most outstanding player of the Final Four.

"Stewie certainly has more confidence than she did last year," Auriemma said.

While all these stars will leave their marks this season, the biggest impact could come from the officials. This season, the NCAA put a huge emphasis on enforcing rules to make the game less physical in hopes of increasing scoring, which was at an all-time women's low of 62.1 points per game. That's down nearly eight points from the first year of NCAA play in 1981-82.

"We make take a step back early but it's going to help the offense in the long run," said Auriemma, whose team will begin its season on Nov. 9 against Hartford before a showdown with Stanford two days later. "All the coaches are for it to help improve the game."

Auriemma hopes his team makes it to Nashville for the Final Four and cuts down the nets on April 8, which would give him one more championship than former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

The Lady Vols would love to make the 180-mile trip across the state to Nashville in April. Tennessee hasn't reached a Final Four since its 2008 national championship, which represents the school's longest absence from that event since the NCAA started running the tournament in 1982.

"If it doesn't bother any of these players on this team, they don't need to have a Tennessee uniform on," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said.

The Lady Vols hope that highly-touted freshman Mercedes Russell can lead them there. The 6-6 phenom is one of many talented freshmen across the country.

North Carolina is counting on big contributions from a stellar freshman group of its own, which some have ranked as the best in the country. The Tar Heels suffered a major blow before the season even started when Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell was diagnosed with leukemia. She's stepped aside and it's unclear when she'll be able to return.

"It's been very difficult to begin with, obviously, she's not there," said longtime assistant Andrew Calder, who is filling in for Hatchell. "It gives us motivation, something else to fight for, something else to win for."

Hatchell is the fourth coach across the country to step away since the school year started. Georgetown coach Keith Brown resigned after an investigation into players' accusations of unprofessional conduct. Xavier coach Amy Waugh stepped down after two difficult seasons trying to rebuild the program. Holy Cross coach Bill Gibbons stepped aside while the college reviews claims by a former player that he was physically and emotionally abusive.

While all four schools have new people in place, two long time coaches are approaching milestones this season. Stanford's Tara VanDerveer is six wins shy of becoming the fifth women's coach to reach 900 victories. Montana's Robin Selvig needs two victories to reach 800.

"It really is just a credit to all my former players," VanDerveer said. "I don't really look at numbers right now, but someday I'll look back at it."


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