UConn women's basketball begins Big East play Friday. Why Geno Auriemma says league is getting tougher

Photo of Maggie Vanoni
UConn's Caroline Ducharme plays in No. 5 UConn's 91-69 win over No. 10 NC State in the NCAA women's college basketball game at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.

UConn's Caroline Ducharme plays in No. 5 UConn's 91-69 win over No. 10 NC State in the NCAA women's college basketball game at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.

Tyler Sizemore/Hearst Connecticut Media

STORRS — Four Big East women’s basketball teams are ranked inside the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time since 2014.

Three of the nation’s top five scorers are from the conference, with the Big East also leading the nation with eight wins over ranked opponents across its 11 members  —  all within the first month of the season.

While UConn women’s basketball has kept a solid spot atop the Big East standings since rejoining the conference three years ago, the disparity between its members is becoming slimmer, making the quest for clinching the Big East regular season and tournament crowns that much harder.

"It's been the case at Connecticut for, you know, 30 years, every team that comes in here or every team we play that's a conference game, that's the game that they're (players) looking forward to," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Thursday before practice. “…. Our goal is to first and foremost always win the conference championship. And tomorrow is the first step in that direction."

After winning last week’s Phil Knight Legacy tournament in Portland, the No. 3 Huskies (5-0) open conference play Friday against Providence (6-2) at 7 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion.

No. 25 Villanova and No. 24 Marquette will also play their first Big East games of the year as well (Wildcats hosts No. 13 Creighton while Marquette will play at Georgetown) on Friday.

"I think the Big East is often overlooked," sophomore guard Caroline Ducharme said. "And I think especially this year having so many teams ranked, (it's) getting the recognition that I think we’ve felt that the Big East deserves."

Added Auriemma: "I think there's a competitiveness among the coaches and among the players. So, I would expect that it's only going to get better and better and better."

UConn has won both the Big East regular season and tournament titles the last two years after rejoining the Big East ahead of the 2020-21 season.

But the Huskies were met with their biggest conference challenges since rejoining last season. First, DePaul took UConn to the wire in late January and the Huskies only escaped unscathed because of a last-second shot from Ducharme. However, Villanova gave UConn its first conference lost since 2013 when it defeated the Huskies 72-69 on Feb. 9 at the XL Center.

The Huskies spent seven years playing in the American conference after leaving the old Big East in 2013.

"You say, ‘Well, there's no way you lose to Villanova at Villanova?’ Really? Why not? You know, Creighton at Creighton that can't be easy," Auriemma said. "… And every game we played with Marquette since I've been back in the league has been a slugfest. And I haven't even mentioned, you know what could happen with some of the other teams. But that's the way it's supposed to be."

The Friars have been a member of the Big East since 1982. UConn is 43-21 all-time against Providence with its last loss coming on March 3, 1993 (87-73). Last year, UConn swept Providence on the road (69-61 on Jan. 30) and at home (88-31 on Feb.27).

And just like last year’s game in Rhode Island, UConn won’t have either Paige Bueckers or Dorka Juhász. Last season, Bueckers missed the away game at Providence due to her knee injury and Juhász sat out due to a foot injury.

While Bueckers is out for the whole 2022-23 season after tearing her ACL in the summer, Juhász will miss her fourth-straight game due to a broken thumb.

On Thursday, Auriemma said the forward will be getting a splint put on her thumb on Friday and will not play against the Friars. He also said Juhász "probably" won’t play Sunday at No. 7 Notre Dame.

Juhász did participate in the non-contact drills during Thursday's practice during the media viewing portion.

"She's doing more workouts," Auriemma said. "She’s touching the ball more and she's involved with more basketball stuff more as opposed to just conditioning stuff."

Maggie.Vanoni@hearstmediact.com  @maggie_vanoni