UConn sophomore Breanna Stewart did a lot of talking Monday, more so than the affable one usually does during any two- to three-hour period of any given day. And Stewart is a conversational soul.
That’s what happens when you are selected as the first American Athletic Conference preseason Player of the Year.
The announcement was made Monday when a new era in women’s basketball began for UConn on AAC media day at the Mohegan Sun Arena. And Stewart bounced freely from pillar to post to talk about it.
“It’s a tremendous honor for me,” said Stewart, the Most Outstanding Player of last season’s Final Four. “It’s very humbling. I wasn’t expecting it. But it’s far more important for me to play at that level the entire season.”
Stewart was one of three UConn players named to the American’s first preseason team. She was joined by senior Stefanie Dolson and junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
It’s primarily because of those three that the Huskies, who won their eighth national championship last season, were the unanimous preseason choice to win the conference’s first regular-season title.
“One of problems for me is, I think, is the team believes this stuff,” Geno Auriemma said. “I’m going to need to have a talk with them about it.”
UConn senior Bria Hartley was honorable mention after struggling through her junior season with an ankle injury.
“You are better off sometimes having a season-ending injury than having one that never goes away,” Auriemma said.
Hartley, who played for USA Basketball’s World University Games team, could not attend training camp held by the senior national team earlier this month because the ankle was still sore.
“There will be other times for me,” Hartley said. “But as for this season, I am very determined to have a great year.”
The remainder of the first team was comprised of Dayeesha Hollins of Cincinnati, Keena Mays of SMU, Sara Hammond, Shoni Schimmel and Antonita Slaughter of Louisville and Inga Orekhova of South Florida.
The Huskies defeated the Cardinals in last season’s national championship game. With Notre Dame gone to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and no longer on UConn’s non-conference schedule after playing 12 times the last three seasons, Louisville will be UConn’s biggest conference foe.
The 10-team amalgamation of former Big East (UConn, South Florida, Cinncinnati, Rutgers, Louisville), Conference USA (Houston, SMU, Memphis, Central Florida) and Atlantic 10 (Temple) teams will hold its first postseason tournament here in March.
Of course, this group is only scheduled to be together for one season. Rutgers leaves for the Big Ten and Louisville for the Atlantic Coast Conference beginning in 2014-15. And next year will bring an entirely new look to the AAC with East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa coming in.
This new league brings former UConn assistant coach, Tonya Cardoza, back into the fold with Temple, which is coming off a 14-18 season and 10th place finish in the Atlantic 10 last season.
“This is a great opportunity for Temple to be in this league,” Cardoza said. “What other conference can say that it has the two teams who played for the national championship among its membership? We are looking forward to the competition level we will be facing now, although it not something we haven’t seen before.”
Last season, UConn defeated Lousiville for the national championship in New Orleans. The Cardinals promise to give the Huskies their greatest conference challenge this season, as well.
Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who has already coached two national championship games with the Cardinals, says his team will get a lot of its fire this season knowing it will host an NCAA Regional final in March.
“I’ve already stressed to the kids already about how important seeding is going to be for us this season,” Walz said. “It’s going to be critical for us.”
Cardoza said one of the toughest things she will do this season is play Cincinnati twice. That’s because the Bearcats are coached by Jamelle Elliott, the former UConn player who sat alongside Cardoza for many years as an assistant on Auriemma. The two are best friends and speak multiple times each week.
“We’ve leaned on each other a lot in our lives,” Cardoza said. “We talk after wins. We support each other after defeats. We’re competitive and we both want to win those games. But the experience is going to be very bittersweet for us.”
Each conference team will play home and away against its nine rivals. The Huskies don’t begin AAC play until Dec. 29 against Cincinnati. It brings more than 80 percent of its scoring back from last year’s team.
“It’s great to know that is the case,” Dolson said. “But it is not something we can afford to think about. We just need to keep pushing to get better.”