Everyone wanted this. Here’s what it means.
For the first time in almost six years, the sun appears to be shining in Storrs, Connecticut. Birds are chirping. Children frolic carefree in the meadows. Dee Rowe tosses a frisbee to an eager Jonathan.
UConn is reportedly headed to the Big East in non-football sports, beginning in 2020.
For men’s basketball, the upgrade is clear: While the American toiled in NCAA power structure purgatory, clearly below the high majors but better than the mid-majors, the Big East is an unquestioned top five conference in college basketball.
For other sports, it means a more reasonable travel schedule, the return of traditional rivalries, and more.
Don’t ask about football.
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The women’s basketball impact is a little more nuanced. UConn hasn’t lost an American Athletic Conference game in women’s basketball. Ever. That’s six consecutive undefeated regular seasons and conference tournament titles. South Florida has been the only other program consistently worth mentioning on a national scale, but even the Bulls have been just a touch better than mediocre.
The Big East isn’t exactly full of world-beaters either. The conference sent just two teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2019: 6 seed DePaul, which lost in the First Round, and 5 seed Marquette, which lost in the Second Round. This version of the Big East has never had a top-four tournament seed.
This is still a massive improvement, and here’s why:
The Big East is just better
Yeah, the Big East isn’t great. But look at the 2018-19 season. After UConn, the AAC placed only two other teams in the RPI top 100 — UCF and Cincinnati. The Big East placed six teams. In 2018, it was three for the American and six for the Big East. There’s more depth there, and while that might not mean much for UConn in terms of wins and losses, it means a lot in terms of metrics. UConn was a 2 seed in the 2019 tournament because, despite putting together a bonkers non-conference schedule, its metrics did not measure up to other top teams. UConn beating Butler by 30 instead of Tulsa by 55 makes a difference. That difference might be mitigated slightly by an improved metric coming to the women’s game soon (think like the NET in the men’s game), but it will still matter.
The Big East being a basketball league shouldn’t be lost here either. Sure, maybe in the American, UCF or Houston will throw a good women’s basketball team together every once in a while. It could happen. But those are football schools. They’re not likely to invest millions in their women’s basketball programs. Their success may be incidental, whereas Villanova, DePaul, and Marquette view basketball much differently (because they don’t have FBS football teams). When they have something good, they will hang on to it. Otherwise Doug Bruno would have been gone years ago. The current Big East will probably never be as good as the old one on the women’s side, with Rutgers, Notre Dame, Louisville, and Syracuse all there to challenge the Huskies. It will also always find a way to be relevant, which is more than the American can say.
It’s what the fans want
OK, not all the fans. Not the football fans clinging to the pipe dream that is the Power 5. There was a time when staying in the American and hoping for the best was the smartest move. That time has passed. The fanbase has largely abandoned its football program, while attendance in men’s and women’s basketball has waned. The women still need to bring in some big-name non-conference opponents, but there’s some more flexibility now. Villanova isn’t a women’s basketball powerhouse, but it’s still Villanova. It’s a name and a brand with more caché attached to it in Connecticut than Tulsa has. The same could be said for Georgetown and Providence.
No team in the current Big East is a natural women’s basketball rival for UConn. DePaul is maybe the best candidate, but the Blue Demons feel more like USF North than Notre Dame. That’s how it is for now. Again, these are teams more willing to invest in women’s basketball and playing in the same conference at UConn will only expedite their growth. There’s a chance that, over time, some of these games build heat. Not at the same level as UConn-Notre Dame, but more than, uh, Temple.
Most importantly, it means stability
Ultimately, this is what matters. Geno Auriemma is a basketball God, but he’s not immortal. There will come a time when he retires, and UConn will not be able to live off the legacy he built forever. Let’s say UConn is in the Big East indefinitely. If they make a bad hire after Geno, they will need a way to sell the program to whoever is next in line. You can’t do that off history alone. Not being in basketball purgatory will go a long way and give UConn a greater margin for error. It seems crazy to think about that now, knowing how absurdly successful the Huskies have been over the last two decades, but there will come a time where that’s not so insane. A Power 5 conference would have been the best possible landing spot, but absent a miracle, this is the absolute best UConn could do.
Speaking of the Power 5, the downside extends far beyond women’s basketball, but will ultimately impact it some day. Though the Big East should be a financial improvement for the university, it’s never going to yield the same amount of money that the ACC or Big Ten would. That matters for a department that reported a $40 million loss last year, needs to pay an AAC exit fee, will probably need to pay Kevin Ollie a few million should the two sides settle, and will need to keep investing in football if it is not going to kill the program entirely.
UConn basketball has a state-of-the-art practice facility, but Gampel Pavilion has seen better days. Meanwhile Power 5 schools have more money than they know what to do with, and yes that already means they pump stupid amounts of money into their basketball programs. Yeah, UConn could still eventually fall behind in the arms race. This move is more than a band aid, but far from the full body cast that the university might need at some point.
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