By Jack Belanger
Today the University of Connecticut officially announced their return to the Big East Conference after seven seasons of competing in the American Athletic Conference and as a college basketball fan and Providence College student, I could not be more thrilled.
After going to the AAC in hopes of bringing in more revenue through its football program, UConn saw not only their football attendance drop, but also in its men’s and women’s basketball programs. While the men’s team won the National Championship in 2014, in their first year in the league, the Huskies made it to the tournament only one more time over the next six seasons. It became apparent that staying in the AAC would not be financially sustainable for the long-term.
In 2019, UConn realized their mistake and came to an agreement with the Big East to return to the conference beginning with the 2020-21 academic year. Not only does the move help save the Huskies from irrelevancy, it also provides a boost to the Big East and Providence College’s men’s basketball team.
UConn’s return to the Big East helps bring back a sense of “regionalism” that has been lost in the sphere of college sports as schools are always looking to join conferences that will bring in the most money. In the AAC, the Huskies closest road game was at Temple University, which was a four-hour drive. The two next closest schools are the University of Cincinnati and East Carolina University. In the Big East, UConn will have Seton Hall University, St. John’s University and Providence College all within a three-hour driving distance. UConn’s ticket sales have already far surpassed last year’s sales at this point so there is clearly a renewed interest from the fans to see old rivals.
Since the Big East teams play a home-and-home series with each team, the Friars will head to Storrs annually, a road game that provides many PC fans a chance to see their team play on the road. Right now PC plays URI, Boston College, and UMass each once a year, and while the URI game provides bragging rights for the best team in the state, none of those matchups are considered heavyweight rivalry games. Playing the Huskies twice a year will reignite an old Big East rivalry for two competitive teams that are expected to annually make March Madness. I can’t forget to mention that the men’s team is coached by old friend Dan Hurley who coached at URI for six seasons.
The two extra games will also work in PC’s favor come Selection Sunday’s in the future. By playing against another top-50 team, the Friars will already be starting off with a tougher schedule than usual, meaning wins against the Huskies will provide a big boost for an at-large bid into the tournament.
The rivalry should also be intensified by PC alumni who still have not forgiven UConn for leaving in the first place. After UConn’s original announcement for their return, one of my advisors at school (who is also a PC alum) told me how much respect he had lost for the school after they left the original Big East conference. During the major conference alignment in the early part of the decade, UConn had been looking to join a different conference in hopes for a better a T.V. contract for its football team therefore, willing to ditch the conference it had been a part of since 1979.
The Huskies return also provides a new challenge for Friars head coach Ed Cooley. During UConn’s time in the AAC, Coach Cooley has had a stronghold in bringing in some of New England’s top rated recruits such as David Duke, A.J. Reeves, and Makai Ashton-Langford. There is a big advantage to pitching to local recruits that their family will be able to watch them play at home and on the road. Also the idea of getting to play at Madison Square Garden in New York is certainly more appealing than Fort Worth, Texas. It will be a true test of Cooley’s recruiting skills to see how he and his staff adjust, now that UConn is on a more level playing field. If PC loses recruits to Hurley, Cooley will have to improve how he recruits in order to stay competitive, which could lead to getting higher ranked recruits than ever before.
UConn’s move also has a significant impact on PC’s women basketball team too. Since 2013, UConn’s women’s basketball team only lost nine games overall and none against AAC teams. They will be immediately slated to be the top team in the conference against top contenders, Marquette and DePaul. For PC, the addition provides a new challenge for a team that has only two winning seasons since 2010. Things may get worse before they get better on the court for head coach Jim Crowley’s team, but playing against the best team in the country will force the team to raise its game if it wants to be competitive. Crowley will also have to improve recruiting if he wants to turn the Friars into an annual contender in the Big East.
On a more positive note, adding the Huskies will also improve the image of the Big East, which can only help when it comes to recruiting. The Women’s Big East Tournament is now set to be played at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut which is certainly an improvement from taking a flight to Wintrust Arena in Chicago. Now that the tournament is within driving distance, more PC students and alumni will have the chance to support the team during the most important games of the Friars’ season.
It still may be too early to think about next basketball season, but any positive sports news is worth covering, especially when it has an effect on college sports. The Big East has been fighting every season to earn respect from the Power-5 conference when it comes to basketball. With UConn returning to the Big East, the conference has added a team that is capable of going to March Madness every year. The conference has strengthened their control over recruiting in the Northeast which means that fans should expect a higher level of play come basketball season.