Women's college basketball 2020-21 Big East predictions -- UConn returns, resumes role as top dog

Juniors Olivia Nelson-Ododa, pictured, and Christyn Williams will help UConn's six freshmen adjust to the next level. Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire

As the countdown continues to the start of the 2020-21 women's college basketball season on Nov. 25, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation's top conferences. We continue with the Big East, where the UConn Huskies return after seven seasons in the American Athletic Conference. The DePaul Blue Demons are expected to be UConn's biggest challenger.

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Biggest Bracketology question | Picks

Big East 2020-21 superlatives

Player of the Year

Mechelle Voepel: Christyn Williams, UConn
Graham Hays: Christyn Williams, UConn
Charlie Creme: Christyn Williams, UConn

Newcomer of the Year

Voepel: Paige Bueckers, UConn
Hays: Paige Bueckers, UConn
Creme: Paige Bueckers, UConn

Big East 2020-21 writer roundtable

Is UConn's return good for the Big East?

Creme: Better teams make better leagues, so UConn's return is better for the Big East. The Huskies bring attention; because of UConn, the American Athletic Conference received more of it over the past seven seasons than the Big East did. That's about to change. More spotlight generally means better recruiting opportunities. Better players means better teams. The elite nature of the Huskies' program will set a higher bar and force the more competitive teams in the Big East to elevate their level. Not every school in the AAC benefited from UConn's presence, but South Florida and Central Florida are better programs today than they were before teaming up with UConn in the conference (USF was also with UConn in the Big East previously).

The Big East that UConn left was much better than the one that exists today, but that comparison begs perspective. That 2013 version of the conference consisted of 15 teams that most notably also included Notre Dame and Louisville. Since UConn left for the AAC, DePaul continued to be a consistent program and has tasted more success with the Huskies, Irish and Cardinals out of the way. The Blue Demons made two Sweet 16 appearances during UConn's absence. Marquette made significant improvements as a program, while St. John's and Villanova fell off.

Hays: The rational part of my brain agrees with Charlie. UConn's presence is why we group the Big East in with the Power 5 conferences in these previews. And that's just one example of myriad ways UConn brings attention to the conference (although it's worth pointing out that because of its national television deal with Fox, the Big East already had a huge leg up on a conference such as the AAC when it comes to exposure).

But the other part of my brain can't help thinking the Big East becomes a little less fun and a little less interesting with UConn around. At least in the short term. Without UConn, there was room for programs such as Seton Hall under Tony Bozzella and St. John's under Joe Tartamella to compete for conference championships. There was room for an emerging coach such as Megan Duffy to do the same at Marquette. The narrative is a little less flexible when you've got Baylor or South Carolina or, yes, UConn in your way. The Big East was less nationally relevant the past few years but arguably more interesting. And it would have been interesting to see if a program such as DePaul could have eventually followed that path to a Final Four.

UConn's return is good for the Big East, but not without the league losing a little something, too.

Voepel: UConn coach Geno Auriemma has joked that when the Huskies visit to play a game, it's like the circus coming to town. In this case, the "circus" is back in the Big East, for better and for worse, as Graham pointed out. Without UConn, the Big East had the feel of multiple programs on the same footing with a chance to compete for the conference title. Now Goliath returns, meaning everyone gets out their slingshot and hopes for perfect aim when they face the Huskies. UConn brings eyes nationally, and that matters. Maybe it makes a difference when a team is on the bubble for an at-large NCAA bid. Maybe it's an extra advantage in recruiting, telling a prospect that she will get to play annually against the Huskies. And it does make geographical sense, for both UConn and the Big East.

But it makes the conference's regular-season and tournament trophies much more difficult to obtain for a lot of programs that would have valued them a great deal, as opposed to an 11-time national champion that has stockpiled them.

Who is the best player in the Big East who doesn't play for UConn?

Creme: DePaul figures to be the Huskies' toughest competition and has two players in guards Sonya Morris and Lexi Held who should be in this discussion. But I am going with a player from a team that likely won't enter into the conference race at all: Villanova's Maddy Siegrist. As a freshman, the 6-foot-1 forward was second in the Big East in both scoring (18.8 PPG) and rebounding (8.9 RPG) and led the league in 20-point games and double-doubles. If Siegrist's 3-point shooting stroke gets even more efficient from her rookie season's 32.5% accuracy, we are looking at a 20-plus-points-per-game scorer for the next three years.

Hays: Siegrist is the only returnee among the Big East's five leading scorers a season ago, and she's just getting started. She's the leading candidate. I can also make a case for DePaul's Morris. Aside from being wildly entertaining -- a pull-from-anywhere shooter who you can't really guard when she gets on a roll -- Morris is in line to take on an even greater role for a team trying to replace both Chante Stonewall's scoring and Kelly Campbell's leadership. Morris was the Big East's most improved player a season ago, averaging 15.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.3 SPG and shooting 36% from the 3-point line, and it's conceivable that the 5-foot-10 junior guard takes a similar step this season and puts herself squarely in the top five in points and assists in the league.

Voepel: I agree on Siegrist, one of the top freshmen in the country last season. But I also want to give a nod to Marquette senior guard Selena Lott, who led the Golden Eagles in scoring (15.6 PPG), assists (5.6 APG) and steals (55). She more than doubled her scoring average from her sophomore season, helping Marquette to a 24-8 record. One of her top performances last season came in the Golden Eagles' finale, the Big East tournament championship game loss to DePaul, in which she had 26 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists.

Would you rather have Crystal Dangerfield, Megan Walker and Christyn Williams or Paige Bueckers, Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams?

Creme: Obviously, that first group had major success in its two seasons all together in Storrs. The trio produced a 64-6 record, Walker was a first-team All-American and Dangerfield perhaps should have been. She went on to win 2020 WNBA Rookie of the Year. Not a bad résumé. But my choice is the second group.

Walker, Dangerfield and Williams were great together, but most observers would agree something was missing from the Huskies a year ago -- a forcefulness, a swagger, the closer instinct. By all accounts that is exactly the attitude that Bueckers brings to the college game. While Auriemma pointed out that she's just a college freshman trying to fit into a top program, he also acknowledged that "she knows she's good." Westbrook had some ups and downs at Tennessee but also showed she had an edge to her. That should be harnessed for more positive results in Storrs.

I also fully expect Christyn Williams to be better this season as a junior than she was as a sophomore. She seemed to fight herself at times and really struggled throughout much of last February. The talent is too great for that to continue into this season.

Hays: This probably hinges on whether I get the version of Williams from last season or the player who sounds like she is ready to take on the world this season.

By her own admission, Williams struggled through a 2019-20 season that tested her confidence. Consider the former No. 1 overall recruit's long-range shooting. UConn just doesn't put up with inefficient 3-point shooting. If you aren't hitting 35% of your attempts, at a bare minimum, Auriemma is going to politely suggest you stop shooting. But the Huskies were stretched so thin a season ago that Williams had to shoot. Granted, 33% would be acceptable at a lot of places. UConn isn't a lot of places. Her inefficiency from long range was indicative of the season, sporadic excellence interspersed with stretches of inconsistency.

And here's the thing: Williams was still a really good player last season! She was first-team all-conference. Again by her own admission, she just wasn't as good as she can be and spent the spring and summer putting in the work that brings with it confidence.

So as good as Dangerfield reminded us she was by winning WNBA Rookie of the Year, I'll go with the promise of Bueckers and Westbrook and the best version of Williams we've seen.

Voepel: I think we all wish we could have seen Megan Walker in another NCAA tournament, one in which she was the go-to player for the Huskies. But it wasn't to be, and so her UConn career has kind of an unsatisfying feeling to it, at least for UConn fans. But Walker moved on to the WNBA, where perhaps she will have her best success.

It also would have been nice for Dangerfield, who had some big NCAA tournament moments, to get one last chance. But her first WNBA season was better than most expected.

Will they be missed this season? Yes, but UConn will get past that if Bueckers and Westbrook play well. There is every indication they will. And as Graham and Charlie said, we can expect the best yet from Williams.

What's the biggest preseason Bracketology question in the Big East?

Creme: Will DePaul be good enough to host?

UConn's quest for a No. 1 seed and the Big East's attempt to get more teams into the field -- the league was projected to put three teams in the NCAA tournament last season -- bears watching, but the Blue Demons most intrigue me. In many ways all three are related. A more successful UConn, and NCAA tournament-worthy seasons from the likes of Marquette, St. John's and Creighton, strengthens DePaul's position as a possible top-16 team in the eyes of the committee.

That is what makes DePaul's quest to host so interesting. DePaul will be more difficult to evaluate without its usual robust nonconference schedule due to COVID-19, and because of a reduced amount of meaningful data that committee members will have to differentiate teams. With a likely higher emphasis on the always vaguely defined "eye test," DePaul's chances to host might come down to a referendum on the rest of the Big East and how the Blue Demons look against UConn -- and whether it's one, two or possibly three games against the Huskies.

Big East 2020-21 predicted order of finish