Rutgers remains the favorite in new-look Big East

The 2005 season was monumental at Rutgers for several reasons. The Scarlet Knights secured the program's first outright Big East regular-season title. They scored a big win over longtime nemesis, Connecticut. And Rutgers vaulted back onto the national scene with three straight wins over top-10 teams, with a precocious group of freshmen leading the way.

In 2006, Scarlet Knight fans expect an encore. A look at how the Big East season might shape up:

The favorite

Expectations will be high at Rutgers, which has hopes of another Big East title and a trip to the Final Four in Boston.

Cappie Pondexter chose to stay in school one more year to have fun with her teammates and try for a national championship. Pondexter is arguably the best guard in the country. She finished strong in 2005; her 24.0 scoring average was the best in the NCAA Tournament.

Rutgers was second in the country last year in scoring defense. Big East defensive player of the year Chelsea Newton is gone, but Matee Ajavon returns. The sophomore guard led the Big East in steals last season during a breakout freshman campaign. However, she might be slowed early in the year as she battles a stress fracture.

The Scarlet Knights are well stocked with Essence Carson on the wing and the Big East's 2005 most improved player, Michelle Campbell, at forward.

The buzz in the Big East is centered on 6-foot-4 freshman Kia Vaughn. She lit up the competition in New York City as a high school senior last year, to the tune of 26 points and 20 rebounds per game. She is the conference's preseason freshman of the year.

Rutgers won games last year with a stifling defense. The Scarlet Knights forced turnovers and quickly converted them into points. But they struggled when teams handled their pressure and played a half-court game.

The contenders

For the first time in a dozen years, the Connecticut Huskies aren't favored to win the Big East. But that doesn't necessarily mean UConn won't have another conference crown next March. The Huskies have gone 12 straight years with a conference regular-season or tournament title. They lost the regular-season championship to Rutgers last season, only to rebound to rout the Scarlet Knights for the tournament crown.

Once again, Geno Auriemma's roster is loaded with talent. Seniors Ann Strother and Barbara Turner are ready to assume the mantle of leadership. Both are national player of the year candidates and might be the best in the game at their respective positions. Strother nailed 85 3-pointers last season. Turner is healthy again after an injury-riddled junior campaign.

Depth will be provided by former high school national player of the year Charde Houston and forward Willnett Crockett. Houston, a sophomore, might be on the verge of great things at UConn. Crockett appears to be almost completely back from offseason shoulder surgery.

The X-factors for UConn are a couple of newcomers. Duke transfer Brittany Hunter is ready to suit up after sitting out last season. How much has her injured knee healed? If Hunter is healthy, Auriemma says she will change everything for the Huskies this year.

Connecticut's search for a consistent point guard, meanwhile, seems to have ended with the arrival of freshman Renee Montgomery, who was a West Virginia high school teammate of Tennessee's Alexis Hornbuckle. Montgomery is a winner and she has reportedly looked cool and composed in the preseason for the Huskies. She'll battle sophomore Ketia Swanier for the starting job.

The UConn swagger that propelled the Huskies to four championships in five years was not evident against Stanford in last year's NCAA Tournament. This year, the pieces are in place for the wins to pile up and the swagger to return.

The post-Batteast era is on in South Bend. Notre Dame's All-American forward, Jackie Batteast, has graduated, taking a big chunk of Notre Dame's scoring and rebounding with her.

But with All-Big East point guard Megan Duffy leading the way, the Irish are well-stocked to move on without her. Duffy honed her skills this summer, starring for USA Basketball, and will be one of the best points in the college game. She has exceptional leadership skills, reads the floor well, can shoot and defend.

Guard Breona Gray and forward Crystal Erwin are back in the starting lineup. Both players doubled their scoring and rebounding averages from the previous year.

Health will be critical for Notre Dame at the other two starting positions. Forwards Courtney LaVere and Charel Allen were sidelined by injuries for parts of last season, with Allen tearing her ACL in the NCAA Tournament. When they are on the court, both players have all-conference potential.

The Irish look to freshmen forward Chandrica Smith and guard Lindsay Schrader to contribute immediately. Notre Dame will again take on one of the most challenging schedules in the country. Last season, the Irish went 7-5 against ranked opponents by playing particularly well on defense.

The DePaul
Blue Demons
have the material to make their inaugural Big East season a memorable one. DePaul has led the nation in scoring each of the last two seasons and returns nearly all of its scoring and rebounding this year.

Senior forward Khara Smith, a two-time All American, averaged a double-double last season with 18 points and 11 rebounds. She pairs inside with sophomore Erin Carney. On the perimeter, C-USA Rookie of the Year Allie Quigley can pass and shoot the 3.

Doug Bruno's club won 26 games last year, grabbing the C-USA title before heading to the Big East. DePaul can rebound, run and score. The Blue Demons will be especially tough at home in Chicago, where they have won 41 of their last 42 home games (Tennessee beat them in 2003).

The Villanova Wildcats should once again be a factor in the Big East race. In the last five years, Villanova has finished no worse than fourth place in the conference race. A strong zone defense and a deliberate and well-executed offense are the trademarks of a Harry Perretta-coached team. This year's edition should be no different.

Villanova will have experience at every position with players who know the intricacies of the Wildcat system. Juniors and seniors could get the nod at every starting position. The perimeter boasts senior guards Betsy McManus and Jenna Viani, while classmates Liad Suez and Kate Dessart Mager patrol the frontcourt.

The Louisville Cardinals bring an impressive front line into the Big East this year. Center Jazz Covington averaged a double-double last season en route to honorable mention All-America status. Missy Taylor, Tatjana Boston, Yuliya Tokova and newcomer Chauntise Wright add depth, giving coach Tom Collen one of the deepest post games in the Big East.

Jessica Huggins and Katie Olson return on the perimeter, along with juco All-American transfer Helen Johnson.

Injuries hurt Louisville last year with Boston, Taylor and Yuliya all sidelined. A healthy bunch of Cardinals could be the darkhorse in the conference.

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.