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UConn women’s basketball opponent previews: The middle tier

The Huskies’ schedule boasts a number of opponents that should be in the NCAA Tournament picture this season.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Seton Hall at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to the contenders on UConn women’s basketball’s schedule, the Huskies are set to face a middle tier of teams which are all likely to be in the discussion to be among the 64 (or 68 should the expansion be approved) teams in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. Among this group are four Big East teams, each of which UConn will play at least twice this season.

Arkansas (November 14)

2020-21 Season: 19-9, lost in first round of NCAA Tournament

Received votes in preseason AP Poll

This year’s Razorbacks look much different than the team that handed the Huskies their lone regular season loss last year. Both Chelsea Dungee, who dropped 37 points on UConn, and Destiny Slocum have moved on to the WNBA. Still, the SEC coaches picked Arkansas to finish seventh in the preseason poll this year which, in a league as deep as the SEC, indicates a tough squad.

Amber Ramirez, the third piece of last year’s strong backcourt, is taking advantage of her extra year of COVID eligibility. With 13.5 points per game in 2020-21, she’s the top returning scorer on the roster and also an elite three-point shooter capable of making the Huskies pay if they allow her to get hot. The Razorbacks also added Jersey Wolfenbarger, the top wing in the 2021 class.

Seton Hall (December 3 and January 21)

2020-21 Season: 14-7, missed NCAA Tournament

Seton Hall is a better team than it looked on paper last season and could be one of the most interesting teams in the Big East to watch this year. The Pirates were picked third in the preseason conference poll and have the talent to contend for a second place finish.

Highlighting the roster are former Husky Andra Espinoza-Hunter who transferred to Seton Hall in January last season, and Lauren Park-Lane who scored 29 points on the Huskies in the first matchup last year. Both Espinoza-Hunter and Park-Lane have garnered national attention on the pre-season position awards watchlists and may make up the best non-UConn duo in the Big East.

Notre Dame (December 5)

2020-21 Season: 10-10, missed NCAA Tournament

Received votes in preseason AP Poll

Notre Dame has had a rough go since its 2018-19 Final Four defeat of UConn. While the Fighting Irish have not returned to elite status, they can be expected to at least contend for a tournament spot this year. They’ll look for Sam Brunelle to have a breakout season after struggling with a nagging leg injury throughout last season to help them get there.

The Irish also return their two top scorers from last season, Maddy Westbeld and Dara Mabrey, both of whom are the younger sisters of former Notre Dame stars. Additionally, they add the No. 8 and No. 16 recruits from the 2021 class, including Olivia Miles — who joined the team as an early enrollee last season.

Georgia Tech (December 9)

2020-21 Season: 17-9, lost in Sweet Sixteen

No. 17 in preseason AP Poll

Georgia Tech returns over 90 percent of the minutes from its 2020-21 Sweet Sixteen team, which had an impressive postseason. While they didn’t come out victorious, the Yellow Jackets challenged both N.C. State and South Carolina in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, respectively.

Georgia Tech returns its entire starting lineup, including leading scorer Lotta-Maj Lahtinen who averaged 15 points per game last season. Both Lahitnen and Lorela Cubaj were named to the preseason all-conference first team. If sophomore guard Loyal McQueen can build on a strong freshman season as well, the Yellow Jackets should be better than last year and could end up being the most interesting ACC opponent on the Huskies’ schedule.

Marquette (December 29 and February 13)

2020-21 Season: 19-7, lost in first round of NCAA Tournament

While the loss of Selena Lott is a big hit to Marquette’s roster, Lauren Van Kleunen returns for her extra year of eligibility. Van Kleunen was a close secondary offensive weapon to Lott at 13.2 points per game. Marquette also returns Chloe Marotta and Jordan King from last year’s squad.

Karissa McLaughlin is a notable addition to this year’s team as a graduate transfer from Purdue. McLaughlin was a first team All-Big Ten player during the 2018-19 season and an honorable mention selection in 2019-20 before missing last season due to ankle surgery. McLaughlin adds another scoring option and a three-point threat to the roster.

DePaul (December 31 and February 11)

2020-21 Season: 14-10, missed NCAA Tournament

Received votes in preseason AP Poll

The Blue Demons are poised for another strong season in the Big East after returning every player that averaged double figure minutes last season, including all four of their starters that topped 10 points per game.

Lexi Held, Sonya Morris and Deja Church all return for DePaul’s backcourt as a trio of guards that do it all. All are capable 3-point shooters and strong rebounding guards. Morris led the team in scoring last year at just shy of 20 points per game, while also adding 5.3 boards and 3.3 assists. Held averaged 16 points, while also leading the team in assists and steals. Though the roster is still guard heavy, as expected from a DePaul team, the Blue Demons have also added some size with two freshman forwards, who stand at 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-3.

Villanova (January 7 and February 9)

2020-21 Season: 17-7, missed NCAA Tournament

Villanova is likely more of a fringe team in its chances to make the NCAA Tournament, but with a player like Maddy Siegrist on the roster, it can’t be left off the list. Siegrist averaged 22.8 points per game last season as one of the best players in the conference, making Christyn Williams shutdown of her offense in the Big East Tournament an impressive feat.

Siegrist can be expected to be even better in her junior season and is starting to garner some national attention, joining Aaliyah Edwards and Dorka Juhász on the preseason watchlist for the Katrin McClain award for the best power forward in the country.