Women's Basketball Conference Play Opens The Door To A New Era

Dec. 25, 2013

Women’s Basketball Conference Play Opens The Door To A New Era
By Catherine Cryan

The beginning of every basketball season carries with it a certain excitement, but it would be hard to match the energy of the 10 women’s teams heading into the conference schedule of the newly reconfigured BIG EAST Conference.  League play begins on December 28 with six teams tipping off at arenas from New York to Nebraska.  The new 10-team structure includes some conference mainstays as well as three teams competing in their first BIG EAST season.   

Every team, one through 10, has already had a November and December highlighted by skillful performances against tough non-conference competition.  Every team has an eye on the BIG EAST title, and the road there will pit them against some familiar foes, some new faces, and some exceptional experience both on the court and on the sideline.

The conference slate brings to mind the adage, “Everything old is new again.”  The five teams that have been BIG EAST stalwarts for 32 seasons (St. John’s, Providence, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Villanova) feature two second-year coaches, two new hires, and a coach who has been with the league through the entirety of its growth and evolution. 

Harry Perretta, who has been at the helm of the Villanova squad since 1978-79, looks forward to a run at the Wildcats’ 31st BIG EAST tournament berth and 11th NCAA appearance.  He also looks forward to the new BIG EAST structure and the opportunities it brings, saying “For the first time in a long time, every single team in the league has a legitimate chance at the BIG EAST championship.” 

Returning five of last year’s seven top scorers, Villanova has jumped out to an 9-1 record in non-conference play.  Being confident that you can compete with every team in your league is a great motivator for players, and for a coaching staff, too.  “We’ve been playing non-conference opponents with very different styles of play, which is what we’ll see in BIG EAST games.  You know that any game can come down to the little things.” 

In their first seasons as head coaches in the BIG EAST are Seton Hall head coach Tony Bozzella and Georgetown’s Jim Lewis.  Both bring an abundance of experience, between Bozzella’s 21 years as a college coach and Lewis’ 40 years with NCAA teams, Team USA, and the WNBA.  Georgetown’s Natalie Butler has emerged as one of the league’s top rookies, earning an impressive four Rookie of the Week honors thus far.  Seton Hall sophomore Tabatha Richardson-Smith has rocketed into the top scoring slot in the BIG EAST, earning Player of the Week honors in early December.

Meanwhile, second-year coaches Susan Robinson Fruchtl at Providence and Joe Tartamella at St. John’s are building on the successes of their first seasons.  St. John’s sophomore Aliyyah Handford has emerged as one of the league scoring leaders, after helping the Red Storm to an NCAA appearance – their fourth straight – in her rookie season.  The Friars continue to make adjustments, paced by junior Tori Rule, another top scorer in the league.  Opening the non-conference season with back-to-back 100-point games, Providence’s growth under Robinson Fruchtl continues to be an exciting story.

Marquette and DePaul, both in their ninth years in the BIG EAST, benefit from the guidance of coaches Terri Mitchell and Doug Bruno, who have each steered their respective teams for the entirety of their careers.  The top pick in the BIG EAST preseason poll, Bruno’s Blue Demons show a balanced scoring attack, with four players averaging in double digits through non-conference games including pre-season Player of the Year pick Brittany Hrynko.  Marquette’s non-conference docket includes wins over such challenging opponents as Vanderbilt and Utah, while their only losses came against No.2 Duke and Wisconsin.

Of the three newcomers to the league, Butler and Creighton boast head coaches who are each entering their 12th seasons with their respective teams, while Xavier’s Brian Neal faces the dual challenge of both a new team and new conference opponents.

Of the switch to the BIG EAST, Butler coach Beth Couture says, “The biggest difference is that we’ll face all new teams in conference play, and so there is a lot of planning that goes into that.  At the same time, there’s a lot of excitement to play different teams – we will really be playing against some legendary coaches, and our players are ready to face tough BIG EAST players.  We’ll have to be at our most prepared – because we know all the coaches in the BIG EAST will do the same.”

Picked second in the BIG EAST preseason poll, Jim Flanery’s Creighton squad has faced an extremely challenging non-conference schedule, pulling in a 4-1 record at home.  First-year coach Neal’s young Xavier team has also pushed hard against early-season opponents, led by the Musketeers’ only upperclassmen, seniors Shatyra Hawkes and Ashley Wanninger.

As the teams get closer to conference play, the players have a few last opportunities to hone their skills against out-of-conference squads before diving feet-first into what promises to be an exciting two-and-a-half months of BIG EAST action.  As Butler’s Couture puts it, “There is simply so much great competition in the BIG EAST.  Every team has to be ready to play every night.”