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Without UConn, Big East Women’s Title Up For Grabs

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By DOUG FEINBERG,  AP Basketball Writer

NEW YORK (AP) _ With the New Year, a new chance for Big East teams to win the conference title without Connecticut.

There’s a feeling of hopefulness among the 10 coaches in the newly configured Big East as conference play gets underway.

In the previous 25 years, only three current members have won the Big East tournament– the last coming in 2003 when Villanova upset Connecticut. It’s been 17 years since one of them won the regular season championship.

“There is no question this league is wide open,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. “Anyone from 1 to 10 can win this league. I was never bothered by the fact that the old setup put you in a position that you were fighting for third or fourth. Third or fourth in the Big East was a Final Four level team. In the present Big East, everyone can win it.”

Bruno’s Blue Demons, the preseason favorite to win the conference, begin Big East play Wednesday when they host Xavier. St. John’s and Seton Hall, two of the founding members of the conference, opened up the “new” league Saturday.

The teams put on a fun, competitive game in front of a spirited crowd with the Red Storm holding on for a 72-63 win. In the past, one loss to anyone other than Connecticut or Notre Dame would doom any chance of a title. Now the winner of the conference might have a few losses.

“All of us know that anyone can win it,” St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella said. “We want to be the benchmark similar to the dynasties of the past. One thing I know is that you got to show up every game and you can’t take a night off.”

New Seton Hall coach Tony Bozzella is no stranger to having one team dominate a conference. He came from the MAAC, where Marist has controlled the league for years. When he arrived at Seton Hall last spring to replace Anne Donovan, he knew the Pirates had a chance to be competitive despite finishing near the bottom of the league the past few seasons.

“I knew this program had a chance to be a contender for a league championship pretty quickly,” he said. “This conference definitely is one that will be won with a few losses. You just need to take care of your home court and steal a few on the road to have a chance.”

While the new configuration gives everyone shot, it also has some downfalls. For years the Big East was the pinnacle of women’s basketball, capped by last season’s NCAA championship game that featured Connecticut and Louisville.

Finishing .500 in the Big East of old would almost guarantee a spot in the NCAA tournament. Now teams likely will have to finish near the top to earn a bid. The conference RPI hasn’t taken a huge drop yet _ it’s still among the top seven or eight in the country.

Wins over Top 25 teams also have been hard to come by. The conference is 0-9 against ranked opponents in the non-conference schedule. This would be the first time in the past 20 years that a member school didn’t have a win over a ranked opponent, according to STATS.

DePaul did play Kentucky close and Marquette gave a scare to Duke. Still, the Red Storm have the best non-conference win with a thrilling, last-second victory over Texas A&M in the Maggie Dixon Classic on Dec. 22 at Madison Square Garden.

The preseason poll marked the first time since Feb. 23, 1993, that no Big East team was in the Top 25. That’s a far cry from Feb. 20, 2012, when the conference had seven teams among the nation’s Top 25.

“Give it time,” Tartamella said. “While it may not be what it once was, we’ll be OK.”

___

Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg
 (© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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