UConn is again a big favorite in the Big East

NEW YORK - Expectations for the Connecticut women's basketball team are no different from those George Steinbrenner harbors annually for his New York Yankees: championships.

"When people talk about rebuilding, you don't have that option at Connecticut," coach Geno Auriemma said yesterday during the Big East Conference women's media gathering at the ESPN Zone. "There's no such thing as rebuilding. So every year my focus with my team is, 'I think we have a chance to win a national championship.' This year? It's no different."

UConn coach Geno Auriemma: Rebuilding is not an option.

Apparently, his fellow coaches in the Big East overwhelmingly agree.

Despite Rutgers' victory over UConn for the Big East championship in March, followed by a run to the NCAA title game, the coaches once again chose the Huskies as the conference favorite in the regular season.

Connecticut collected 15 of 16 first-place votes. Auriemma, not permitted to vote for his team under Big East guidelines, had Rutgers at the top of his ballot.

The Scarlet Knights return all five starters from a squad that went 27-9. But they collected fewer first-place votes yesterday than they did a year ago, when they picked up five and were not as highly regarded nationally.

"How about that?" Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said with a smile after the vote was announced. "But that's OK."

Rutgers has three players on the preseason all-conference team - seniors Essence Carson and Matee Ajavon, and junior Kia Vaughn.

Connecticut, however, also is loaded from a team that went 30-4. Sophomore Tina Charles and junior Renee Montgomery made the all-conference squad. Newcomer Maya Moore was the nation's top high school prospect, out of Georgia.

Louisville junior Angel McCoughtry was picked as the top preseason player.

Rutgers did outdraw Connecticut in terms of the media crush at the interview tables.

Despite the Huskies' array of talent, the seniors never have reached a Final Four.

"I don't have to say anything about that," Auriemma said. "They hear about it all the time from Sue Bird and the others who came before them."

After the one-two punch, there are six teams that went to the NCAA tournament.

West Virginia earned its highest preseason pick at third, followed by Pittsburgh, which had its best season. The Panthers are led by all-conference selection Marcedes Walker, a senior who is a graduate of University City High.

Villanova was picked at 12th coming off its worst season ever at 8-21 and 2-14 for last place in the 16-team Big East.

"We didn't forget about last year, but we're trying not to dwell on it," senior Stacie Witman said. "The only way we can go is up, so we're trying to build on that."

Helping the cause is junior Laura Kurz, a Germantown Academy graduate who sat out last season after transferring from Duke.

"It's nice having something to work for after having the year off," Kurz said. "I'm definitely ready to play."

Atlantic Ten outlook. The conference had an abbreviated women's gathering, inviting coaches of the top-four picks to take part in the men's event yesterday in Atlantic City.

Temple's Dawn Staley was the lone local representative, joining George Washington's Joe McKeown, new Charlotte coach Karen Aston, and Xavier's Kevin McGuff.

George Washington, with four starters returning, was a unanimous first-place choice, collecting all 17 votes by the coaches and selected media members.

Charlotte and Xavier tied for second, followed by Temple at fourth. St. Joseph's was picked sixth and La Salle 10th.

Seniors Lady Comfort of Temple and Carlene Hightower of La Salle are on the preseason all-conference first team.

Contact staff writer Mel Greenberg at 215-854-5725 or mgreenberg@phillynews.com. Read his blog on women's basketball at go.philly.com/womhoops.