The Big East and UConn, together again
NEW YORK — No one’s ever accused Geno Auriemma of holding back. The Hall of Fame UConn head coach isn’t one to mince words, and on Thursday, he said what was on the minds of so many Husky fans across the country.
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Moments after UConn was officially welcomed back to the Big East in a press conference at Madison Square Garden, he started doing what he does best: advocating for his school and his old/new league.
The UConn women’s basketball program is enough of a machine that it will succeed no matter what conference it’s in for as long as Auriemma is at the helm. When he heard the news that the Huskies were headed home, his first thought wasn’t about his own team.
“The initial reaction for me is that this changes the game for men’s basketball at the University of Connecticut,” he said. “It’s a game changer for the university and our fanbase because what they’re going to see on a Thursday night when it’s snowing in February is 15,000, 14,000 people at the XL Center because of who we’re playing. That, to me, changes everything.”
Auriemma went on to say that the better the men’s team is, the healthier the athletic department as a whole, and by extension, the university. He’s ready to see them excel on the court again.
That’s not to say there’s nothing for him to get excited about with his own team.
“I’m taking a bus to Providence and coming home in time to watch Law and Order at 10,” he said, comparing the travel schedule in the Big East to the grueling demands of the American.
That, Auriemma says, will have the biggest impact on his team. Not only did UConn have to travel more in conference than just about any team, playing in far-flung cities like New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, and Tulsa, but the weak conference also meant Auriemma needed to schedule up in non-league play. That often included a few road trips to national powers as well. He admitted that by the end of the year, the schedule would wear on his players and the coaching staff.
There’s another bonus too: Playing a bus trip away from four conference opponents means that UConn fans can get to their share of road games.
“I miss those days when 25 buses would pull up to Rutgers, Seton Hall, or Villanova,” he reminisced. “I miss those days.”
Athletic director David Benedict underscored that point to the media as well, saying that the ease of travel will make a difference to recruits and their families across sports.
“Just the ability for families to think ‘hey now I’m not only gonna be able to see home games, but I’m gonna be able to see a bunch of road games,’ that makes a difference over four years,” he said.
There are still plenty of logistics to iron out with the transition, including a timeframe, exit fee, and TV rights. When the time comes, however, Auriemma is looking forward to working with the rest of the league on making the Big East as strong as possible in women’s basketball. That might include bringing the conference tournament to Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut, a venue that Auriemma thinks highly of. Or, it could mean keeping the tournament in Chicago and leveraging the Second City’s media market by playing in DePaul’s new arena.
“I think the best arena I’ve been in in a long, long time is DePaul’s new arena in downtown Chicago,” he said. “The setting is magnificent, the arena is beautiful, it’s the perfect size. If that’s where they want to have it all the time, I’m good to go. I’ll go to Chicago early and I’ll stay late to play in the tournament there.”
In the regular season, look for UConn to try and play St. John’s at Madison Square Garden every once in a while. It happened on occasion in the old Big East, and Auriemma was excited about the possibility of it happening again.
UConn still has a minimum of one more season in the American, but the excitement around the program is palpable. The Big East is a clear step up in women’s basketball and adding in the biggest brand in the sport will only elevate it. Fingers crossed that this gets done by July 2020.
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