Big East women’s basketball is the strongest it’s been since realignment as postseason tournament gets underway

When Val Ackerman took over as commissioner of the Big East in June 2013, the landscape of women’s basketball in the conference was facing a total shift.

Just a few months prior, the league saw three teams — UConn, Notre Dame and Louisville — make the Final Four. But thanks to realignment, the ‘new Big East,’ as Ackerman likes to call it, was suddenly without any of those programs.

Also gone were Rutgers, Syracuse, South Florida, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Creighton, Butler and Xavier entered the mix in their stead.

“It was unproven,” Ackerman told the Courant. “The new Big East … was not the same. It did not have the same level of competition as the old Big East in women’s basketball.”

While it’s hard to imagine anything matching the conference in its heyday, around a decade later Big East women’s basketball enters the postseason as the strongest its been since realignment.

With the Huskies in their third season back, the regular season featured multiple upsets and a tight race to the championship. Five teams — UConn, Villanova, Creighton, Marquette and St. John’s — are currently projected to make the 2023 NCAA Tournament, which would be the most in this new era of the conference. The league also boasts two of country’s top five leading scorers, along with a number of other players receiving national recognition.

“The level of competition is clearly rising,” Ackerman said. “There have been a number of positive signs and I’m just glad to see that our commitment to basketball in the Big East isn’t just ending with the men’s programs. We talk often about being a men’s and women’s basketball conference here. And it’s good to see that investment now starting to pay off on the women’s side.”

Ackerman believes the 2023 Big East Women’s Basketball Tournament, which begins Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena, will be “our most exciting one yet.”

The Huskies aren’t as untouchable as they have been in years past, upset twice already by unranked foes in the conference, and the league is as deep as its been in recent memory with seven teams in the top-70 of the NCAA’s NET rankings: No. 5 UConn, No. 10 Villanova, No. 17 Creighton, No. 40 Marquette, No. 54 St. John’s, No. 64 DePaul and No. 67 Seton Hall. Xavier is the only team with a NET ranking lower than 127.

“Top to bottom right now, it’s as strong as it’s been (since realignment),” St. John’s head coach Joe Tartamella, who has been around the league since starting as a graduate assistant in 2002, said after upsetting UConn last month. “It creates a lot of parity, which is good. I think it also helps all of our teams prepare for postseason because the games that you’re going into now, I mean, you’ve got to be ready to play. That was the beauty of how it was back in the old league.”

Following the realignment shift, DePaul took over as head honcho of the league. The Blue Demons won the conference’s regular-season or tournament championship in each of the seven seasons the Huskies were gone. They made the NCAA Tournament field in each of those seasons and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen twice.

The 2014 and 2015 NCAA Tournaments only featured one other Big East team beyond DePaul — St. John’s as a No. 8 seed in the first year and Seton Hall as a No. 9 in the second. Then all three of those teams made the field in 2016.

The Big East again had three teams in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, this time with 5-seed Marquette and 7-seed Creighton alongside the 7-seed Blue Demons. Villanova joined them as a 9-seed the following year for a high of four (though just one higher than an 8-seed) before it dipped to just two — DePaul and Marquette — in 2019.

The return of the Huskies

The conference again only saw two teams make the field in UConn’s first year back, with 10-seed Marquette joining the first-seeded Huskies in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. But there was a clear shift in momentum in 2022, with four teams making the expanded 68-team field. DePaul lost in the First Four, however 11-seed Villanova and 10-seed Creighton made their presence felt with some upsets and the 2-seed Huskies made it to the title game.

The Wildcats knocked off 6-seed BYU in the first round, before a loss to 3-seed Michigan in the second round. The BlueJays were the shock of the Big Dance as they upset 7-seed Colorado, 2-seed Iowa and 3-seed Iowa State to make it to the Elite Eight, where they fell to eventual national champion South Carolina.

That success carried over into this season, with five different Big East teams appearing in the AP Top 25 poll at one point or another. Back on Nov. 28, the league had four teams — No. 3 UConn, No. 13 Creighton, No. 24 Marquette and No. 25 Villanova — ranked in the poll for the first time since the final rankings of the 2012-13 season before realignment.

UConn and Villanova are both currently ranked in the top-15, at No. 9 and No. 11, respectively.

“I give UConn’s re-entry a lot of the credit here because they’ve given our schools something to aspire to,” Ackerman said. “People know how good they are, they get to test themselves against this great powerhouse twice a year under our scheduling format. So I think the adage of a rising tide lifting all ships is applying here.”

Villanova knocked off UConn in the 2021 regular season, handing the Huskies their first conference loss since 2013-14 after not facing much resistance in the AAC. They were then upset by Marquette and St. John’s this season, dropping two conference games in the same year for the first time since that same season.

“The more teams beat us and the more we have games like this, St John’s, Marquette, I think the more it shows that we’re a three or four, maybe sometimes five team NCAA Tournament league,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “I think it’s only going to get better. It’s hard to win in our league, man. It’s hard. Especially when you’re UConn. It’s National Championship for everybody when they beat us.”

UConn brings exposure

Having the Huskies back has also paid dividends to give the league more exposure.

UConn’s long-standing relationship with SNY helped put more Big East games on television. The conference is in 10th year of a multi-year contract with FOX Sports, with women’s basketball games shown on the main Fox channel in each of the last three seasons since UConn re-entered. With interest in the sport growing, Fox broadcasted a record four women’s basketball games featuring the Huskies this past season.

Big East games were also shown on FS1, FS2 and CBS Sports Network as part of the deal with Fox. This weekend’s tournament will have every game televised for the first time, with the first round games all airing on SNY. The remaining games will be broadcasted by FS1 and FS2.

“The more attention that we can bring to our women’s programs through television the better,” Ackerman said. “That has started to happen in a bigger way over the last few years, and then that exposure just leads to other benefits. It becomes a recruiting advantage. It helps with fan engagement where people see the quality of play. It helps with the reputations of our schools. So getting things going in a bigger way on television, I think has been a key change as well over the last few years.”

More games on television has also meant more recognition for talent across the league.

Star power emerges

Villanova forward Maddy Siegrist ranks first nationally with 29.0 points per game, while DePaul forward Aneesah Morrow is fourth with 25.7 points per game.

Siegrist and Morrow have appeared on multiple watch lists for national player of the year awards, along with Aaliyah Edwards, who is averaging 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game for UConn in her junior season. That trio also gave the Big East three of the top five finalists for the Katrina McClain Award, given to the best power forward in the country, as announced on Thursday.

The Big East also had substantial representation among the top-five finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award announced in Monday. UConn’s Nika Muhl and Seton Hal’s Lauren Park-Lane both made the cut for the prestigious honor, given annually to the best point guard in the country. Muhl ranks second in the nation with 7.9 assists per game while Park-Lane is averaging 19.7 points and 6.4 assists.

“I feel like Big East is very slept on,” Muhl said. “I hope people are going to start recognizing that. I love the competition that’s been going on.”

Villanova nearly beat out UConn in the regular season title race, but lost both of the tightly contested matchups between the two teams. The Wildcats could give the Huskies a run for their money in the league tournament, providing even more intrigue as the programs develop a back and forth similar to some of the rivalries on the men’s side.

Both UConn and Villanova are projected as top-four seeds for the NCAA Tournament, while Creighton is pegged as a 7-seed by multiple outlets. Marquette is projected as a 9-seed by Just Women’s Sports and an 11-seed by ESPN, while St. John’s is projected as an 11-seed by Just Women’s Sports and a 12-seed by ESPN.

All of those teams will have one last chance to prove themselves to the committee in this weekend’s tournament, before Selection Sunday on March 12.

“Now the test will be how far we can go in the tournament beyond UConn,” Ackerman said. “Creighton proved last year that they can go far. And now we’ll see. How far can Villanova go? How far can Marquette go? How hot could St. John’s get? These are questions that remain unanswered, but I think it’ll all be exciting to see how that all turns out over the course of the next month.”