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UConn women’s basketball opponent preview: The contenders

Louisville, Baylor and South Carolina look to be the Huskies’ biggest challengers.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Despite the shift to the Big East, the best teams on UConn women’s basketball’s 2020-21 schedule is still highlighted by their non-conference slate. The Huskies are set to face three top-10 opponents in Louisville, Baylor and South Carolina —- and will likely add a fourth with Mississippi State if both teams’ first games go as planned during the opening weekend of the season. In an improvement from the AAC, two Big East teams do make the honorable mentions here.

The Contenders:

Mississippi State Bulldogs (November 29th)

2019-20 record: 27-6, finished at No. 9 in the AP poll

This game is not set in stone, but barring a monumental upset from Quinnipiac or Maine, the Huskies should face the No. 6 ranked Bulldogs in their second game of the season. The most notable change for Mississippi State this offseason was the departure of head coach Vic Schaefer to Texas.

The coaching change did bring some roster movement but the Bulldogs’ one-two punch in the frontcourt remains. Rickea Jackson led the team in scoring as a freshman last season while 6-foot-5 Jessika Carter followed as a close second while also tallying nearly nine rebounds per game.

Additionally, redshirt Junior Myah Taylor finished eighth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, ranked fourth in the SEC for assists per game and was named to the Nancy Lieberman Award watch list, given to the top point guard in the nation, on Monday. How Taylor expands on last year’s performance and how much Jackson improves from an already great freshman year may be the most critical pieces for Mississippi State contending for both the SEC and NCAA titles.

This is the first time the Huskies have played the Bulldogs since the infamous Final Four loss at the buzzer in 2017. Andra Espinoza-Hunter, who transferred from UConn to Mississippi State during her freshman season, will not take the court against her former team. She opted to sit out this season due to the ongoing pandemic.

Louisville Cardinals (December 4th)

2019-20 record: 28-4, finished at No. 6 in the AP poll

The Huskies are projected to have not one, but two top-10 matchups in their first week of the season with No. 5 Louisville coming to Mohegan Sun on December 4th. The Cardinals hovered around the same position in the polls as UConn last year and, in a lot of ways, it seems like these two teams are in similar positions heading into this season as well.

For starters, both teams have experience guards in their backcourt. For UConn, it’s Christyn Williams and for Louisville, it’s Dana Evans. Evans is the reigning ACC Player of the Year and was named a Lindy’s pre-season All-American. She was eligible to declare for last year’s WNBA Draft, but opted to return for her senior season after leading the Cardinals in points and assists last season. Expect to see her name on plenty of pre-season watch lists as they roll out.

Louisville also adds the second-most talked about 2020 recruit to their backcourt. Hailey Van Lith was the No. 7 prospect in the class but garnered quite a bit of national buzz and also joined Paige Bueckers on the Nancy Lieberman Award watch list. It will be very early into both player’s careers when their teams meet but it should be fun to watch the two face off at point guard nonetheless.

Overall, this game feels like a bit of a toss up and could easily go either way. At the very least, it’ll be a good barometer for the Huskies early on.

Baylor Bears (January 7th)

2019-20 record: 28-2, finished at No. 3 in the AP poll

So much of Baylor’s season hinges on the health of reigning National Defensive Player of the Year, Didi Richards. Richards suffered a spinal cord injury in practice two weeks ago and has been ruled out indefinitely. The Bears took a small tumble in the rankings because of the injury, falling to No. 4 in the preseason rankings, after previously expecting to be a top-three team.

There does seems to be some optimism around Richards’ injury as the team announced on Monday that she has no structural damage and will transition to the point guard position this year — a move that quickly landed her on the Lieberman Award watch list.

NaLyssa Smith also returns as one of the best frontcourt players in the country. Part of Baylor’s standout 2018 recruiting class, Smith led the team in scoring last season and finished second in rebounding behind WNBA lottery pick Lauren Cox. Dijonai Carrington also joins the team as a grad transfer from Stanford.

Additionally, Baylor has Queen Egbo and Moon Ursin in the mix, both of whom are also members of the esteemed 2018 recruiting class and played substantial minutes last season. With the addition of two top-20 recruits as well, the Bears have all the makings of a Final Four team if Richards is healthy.

South Carolina Gamecocks (February 8th)

2019-20 record: 32-1, finished at No. 1 in the AP poll

The Gamecocks finished last season at No.1 overall and it’s no surprise to see them back in that spot to start off this year. That being said, South Carolina isn’t leaps ahead of any other team in the top 10 and — like everyone else — has a lot of question marks after losing two first round draft picks from last season (Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan and Tyasha Harris).

While a lot of those question marks should be answered by the time the Huskies meet the Gamecocks, Aaliyah Boston will certainly be a big part of how good South Carolina is come February. Boston had a standout freshman season which finished with her winning the Lisa Leslie Award as the nation’s top center. All signs point to Boston being in contention for that award again (though Olivia Nelson-Ododa could give her some stiff competition).

Zia Cooke is the only other returning double-digit scorer after a solid freshman outing. Cooke’s freshman season had some ups and downs but South Carolina will look to her for consistent production this year. Another member of last year’s top ranked recruiting class will likely need to step up for the Gamecocks to keep the top spot; Right now, Brea Beal looks like a good candidate.

Honorable Mentions:

Tennessee Volunteers (January 21st)

2019-20 record: 21-10, not ranked in the final AP poll

Tennessee finished last season without receiving any votes in the final AP poll, but did receive one vote in the preseason poll and could climb to be a top 25 team this year. Rennia Davis, who caused some problems for the Huskies and scored 16 points in last year’s matchup, returns as the team’s leading scorer. Jordan Horston also returns for her sophomore year and will look to build upon her strong freshman year.

DePaul Blue Demons (TBD)

2019-20 record: 28-5, finished at No. 15 in the AP poll

DePaul is not a newcomer to UConn’s schedule, but the move to the Big East means the Huskies will have two matchups with the Blue Demons this season. Doug Bruno consistently produces top-25 teams and checked in at No. 19 in the AP preseason poll. Known for their fast tempo of play, DePaul scored more points per game than all but one team in the country last year and returns three double digit scorers in the backcourt.

Marquette Golden Eagles (TBD)

2019-20 record: 24-8, received votes in the final AP poll

Marquette consistently appeared in the top 25 in 2019 and received votes in the final three polls of last season. It’ll start off the 2020 season unranked, but did pick up four votes in the preseason poll. Most notably, the Golden Eagles return Selena Lott, who — despite being left of the Lieberman Award watch list — could be one of the best point guards in the nation this season. Lott was named to the preseason All-Big East Team and ranked among the top 1% of players for both her scoring efficiency from two point range and assists per game last season, according to Her Hoop Stats.