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UConn women’s basketball opponent previews: The middle tier

Both non-conference and Big East opponents will provide opportunities for UConn to face NCAA tournament caliber opponents

Photo: Ian Bethune

Beyond the marquee non-conference matchups, UConn’s schedule features plenty of chances to face NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents in both the remaining non-conference slate and against top Big East opponents.

NC State (November 12)

UConn’s second game of the season includes a road trip down to Raleigh. Wes Moore’s squad looks a bit different this year but should still be a good early season measuring stick for the Huskies as a power conference team with tournament expectations. Returning starter Madison Hayes, plus last year’s transfers Saniya Rivers (South Carolina) and Mimi Collins (Maryland) should create a solid foundation for the Wolfpack.

Minnesota (November 19)

The Gophers went 11-19 last season, so referring to Minnesota as a NCAA Tournament team for 2024 is a stretch. Still, this game provides an opportunity to add a Big Ten road win on UConn’s resume. Additionally, Mara Braun (All-Big Ten Freshman Team 2023) returns to Minnesota for her sophomore season and should be a good defensive test for the Huskies’ backcourt early on.

Kansas (November 25)

The Huskies’ trip to the Cayman Islands over Thanksgiving is far from a vacation. In addition to facing preseason No. 4 UCLA, they’ll also meet the reigning WNIT champion Jayhawks (who received votes in the AP preseason poll). Kansas returns four of five starters from last year’s team — including Taiyanna Jackson, who averaged a double-double last season. Two-time ASUN Defensive Player of the Year Skyler Gill, who ranked in the top-10 nationally for blocks per game in both of the last two seasons, is another notable addition.

North Carolina (December 10)

Falling just outside of the preseason top-15 at No. 16 in the AP Poll, North Carolina will provide a good matchup for UConn at Mohegan Sun in December. The Tar Heels return three starters from last year’s squad, including the duo of lead scorer Deja Kelly and lead rebounder Alyssa Utsby. The addition of Iowa State’s Lexi Donarski should also help bolster the backcourt — and the combination of Kelly and Donarksi should provide a good defensive test with a high quality, neutral court ACC win on the line.

Louisville (December 16)

The Cardinals are an interesting team this year. Jeff Walz’s squad checked in at No. 17 in the preseason poll despite only returning Olivia Cochran from last year’s starting lineup. That preseason ranking can largely be attributed to excitement around the pieces Louisville has added in the transfer portal this offseason. All Pac-12 guard Jayda Curry (Cal) is the most notable addition to help replace the production of Hailey Van Lith in the backcourt. Reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year Kiki Jefferson (James Madison) is also already gaining national attention with a nod on the Cheryl Miller Award watchlist to start off her time in Louisville.

Marquette (December 31, January 23)

Picked to finish third in the conference at Big East media day, Megan Duffy and Marquette should once again have a squad that’s looking to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament this season. This year’s Golden Eagles should be anchored by their seniors and returning starters Jordan King and Liza Karlen. King led the team in scoring and assists last season while Karlen averaged over 10 points and seven rebounds per game. Starter Rose Nkumu also returns along with Mackenzie Hare, who led the bench production for Marquette last season. Duke transfer Lee Volker is among multiple new additions this season for the Golden Eagles.

Creighton (January 3, February 19)

UConn is by far the favorite in the Big East but Creighton (ranked No. 22 in the AP Preseason Poll) is the clear challenger in the conference. The Bluejays once again return their core from the last two seasons in Lauren Jensen, Morgan Maly, Molly Mogensen and Emma Ronsiek, which leaves them with all the pieces to be a top-25 (if not top-20) team all season long. The Bluejays were among the country’s best offenses last year, especially when things click from deep, and can expected to be in a similar conversation this season.

“Isn't there a limit to how many years you can spend in college? I think four of [head coach Jim Flanery’s] five starters… they've been in Omaha longer than the College World Series. Every time I look up, those guys are in the starting lineup,” Geno Auriemma joked on Tuesday.

“I think they're way undervalued in that preseason top 25 poll,” he added later. “I think they're legit. Like go deep in the tournament kind of team, if all breaks right.”

Villanova (January 31, February 28)

Maddy Siegrist may be gone, but the Wildcats should still have postseason aspirations for 2024. Villanova returns most of the other key pieces from last year’s team which earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Most notably, junior Lucy Olsen is back at the point guard position and should continue to provide exciting matchups with Nika Muhl this season. Christina Dalce also gave UConn fits on the glass at times last year and is back for her junior season. Olsen and Dalce spent much of the summer competing for team USA in various 3×3 tournaments together. Seniors Maddie Burke and Bella Runyan also return.

“How do I evaluate [Villanova]? I evaluate it’s going to be a little more fun to go to Philadelphia than it was the last couple of year [because we don’t] have to worry about how to guard that sucker,” Auriemma said, referencing Siegrist. “The thing about Villanova is they've always been more than just one player because of their style of play and Denise [Dillon] coaches that way… They're gonna be really good.”

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