This article was originally published June 26, 2019. With the college basketball season and UConn’s return to the Big East imminent, it felt appropriate to resurface this one.
In 2013, the Big East completely fractured. The league was hemorrhaging members jumping ship to greener, power-five pastures, and the Catholic 7, the moniker adopted by the seven religious schools without FBS football, a schism from the pack.
Connecticut was one of the casualties, left behind after the dust settled. Its market wasn’t enough to persuade a power conference to extend an invite, and its football wasn’t doing much to make up for it. That stuck the Huskies in the new American Athletic Conference, a collection of former Big East misfits and the prime pickings from Conference USA. UConn men’s lost long-standing rivalries with Syracuse, Georgetown, Villanova and Pittsburgh, and the women’s program separation from Notre Dame took two of the sport’s best away from one another.
Great News, Everyone
On Monday, the Big East officially voted to accept Connecticut as its 11th member, with the Huskies bringing every sport but football back to its long-time league, reuniting UConn with many of the schools it built the conference with decades ago.
This should be considered a victory for the basketball world.
The Big East is one of the most important and influential basketball leagues to ever exist. The men’s basketball games the conference offered in primetime during the winter on ESPN 30-plus years ago revolutionized the way the game was watched, and the rough, physical style put the grit and toughness of East Coast streetball on display for the nation. The drama, the matchups and the personality made the league something of a reality show. Outspoken, emotional coaches, like Jim Boeheim, John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun and more generated regular storylines that any novelist would love.
That history has allowed the Big East to carry into the modern age, surviving the turbulence of the early-2010s with basketball unifying a portion of the schools that made the league what it is. It just got stronger this week.
Some of the most memorable moments in Big East history involved Connecticut, and like with the losses of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and others, those memories were a bit tainted after its departure. Not seeing the Huskies in Madison Square Garden every spring, battling the best the East for one of the sport’s greatest prizes, cheapened the Big East Tournament slightly and made UConn feel like, well, not UConn.
But one piece of the old puzzle is back. Soon, Connecticut will be back where it belongs – in the Big Apple for its conference tournament – and more amazing moments can be made with the same frenemies from all those years.
The Big East Tournament is one of the biggest events in all of basketball, and the sport is better with Connecticut in it.
Women’s Hoops Implications
Don’t ignore how this improves the sport on the women’s side, too. The Huskies have ran the AAC for the six seasons they’ve been in the conference. So far, the team is yet to drop a game to an AAC opponent, totaling a 102-0 unbeaten record against the conference.
UConn was pretty successful when it was in the Big East, too, but it didn’t dominate to that degree. Connecticut is the greatest program in women’s college basketball, and the sport will benefit from having its top dog tested during conference season.
In men’s and women’s basketball, the Big East just got that much more competitive. Even though the men’s program has been in a slump as of late, the caliber of recruiting Dan Hurley is pulling off, plus the history and investment into the sport, is reason to believe that will change. Who knows if the Huskies will ever win four championships in 15 years again, but they don’t have to reach that level to help elevate Big East basketball.
Someone Has to Lose
The only ones who might not be happy with the move are AAC schools, particularly those who drive basketball in the conference. The league will likely look for a 12th member to replace the Huskies, and it’s unlikely it will find a school with basketball programs as storied as Connecticut’s.
But the conference had one of its best men’s seasons yet without Connecticut qualifying for the tournament, so there is still plenty of potential among the remaining members. Besides, most of the AAC laments its fortune of finding itself stuck in non-power purgatory and would leave in a heartbeat if it meant major conference membership. None of them could possibly blame UConn for its decision.
Sports are at their best when the stakes are raised, and in men’s and women’s college basketball, they just got ever so slightly bigger. For the first time in a long time, conference realignment brought the sport closer together, not further apart.