Geno Auriemma and UConn finally return to Big East after seven-year absence Wednesday. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)
July 1 marks a new fiscal year for many corporations. The books are closed at the end of the June 30 business day. July gives the opportunity to start anew.
In the Big East Conference, the first day of July brings in a new beginning, a welcome back to a familiar face and charter member from decades back. The University of Connecticut is now back in the fold. The men and women’s basketball programs will have an impact from day one.
Here is a look at what the presence of the Huskies’ women’s team will mean to the conference, and to UConn as well:
Geno Auriemma arrived in Storrs in August of 1985. After a 12-15 first year, his only losing season at UConn, the program turned the corner and never looked back. This is a program with 19 Final Four appearances, 11 national championships, countless accolades, and a number of outstanding players having passed through its ranks.
Auriemma has never apologized for a success regarded as beyond unprecedented. The UConn mentor has said others are free to use the model and challenge the Huskies. Recruiting is a major part of the story, no doubt. Beyond securing outstanding talent is a task of molding it into a cohesive unit, a unit with everyone buying into the philosophy and accepting their designated roles, not an easy feat and even more remarkable considering it’s been that way — and a big part of the run — for a good three decades-plus in the Nutmeg State.
During their time (31 years) in the Big East, the Huskies captured 19 regular season championships. The first year ending with a conference postseason title was 1983. The Huskies virtually turned the postseason tournament into a UConn Invitational, winning 18 titles. The last seven years saw the Huskies cut through American Athletic Conference competition like a hot knife through butter. Seven years, seven regular season and postseason titles.
Opponents will be circling the dates for their meetings with UConn. There was a time the opposition did the same, but for different reasons.
“We always checked the date we faced UConn,” said ESPN’s Doris Burke (Doris Sable in her playing days). She was an all conference guard for Providence in the mid-1980s, and she recalled, “UConn was not very good. It was virtually an automatic victory.” A win and a chance to pad personal stats. No more.
It is safe to say conference opponents will still be circling the dates they meet the Huskies, but with a different mindset than that of Burke and her Providence teammates. No automatic wins over a weak link, but rather the opportunity to get a marquee victory, by virtue of upset, over an established national power, not to mention, a succinct reminder to bring your A-game — or better — on those nights.
UConn left the Big East following the 2012-13 season. Louisville and Notre Dame did as well, relocating to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Suddenly, the powerful Big East was minus several Fortune 500-caliber programs. In addition, consistently strong teams the likes of West Virginia, Syracuse, South Florida and Rutgers were also exiting. The conference regrouped, featuring several respectable programs to form a 10-member group that was competitive, but on the national scene often, and unfairly, overlooked.
UConn’s return changes that. Now, there is the presence of a consistently dominant program capable of continuing regular trips to college basketball’s final weekend. That is a situation that can only help, as the conference would stand to have a presence and recognition as postseason play progresses.
As noted, and not surprising, UConn’s return will mean a significant competitive step up. It is safe to say the Huskies will be a preseason favorite in the Big East. There will be challenges. DePaul, Seton Hall and St. John’s all played UConn in recent seasons and are keenly aware of what to expect. For all the other member schools, it is an exciting time. Those in programs as Providence and Butler, working their way up the ranks, will get an up-close look at what makes a perennial national contender tick. For all teams, it is an opportunity to face a program of legendary status at least twice a year, and if you can knock them off on that given night, an instant boost of credibility and gravitas.
The Big East maintains a solid reputation of strong programs, strong academics and much better than average exposure in the media. Want another selling point? Telling a prospective student-athlete that she will have the opportunity to test herself at least twice a year against a perennial Top 5 program.
Each year is a guaranteed visit from UConn, and outstanding draw, though this season will hinge upon how COVID-19 plays out. Personnel, as usual, is impressive. For the upcoming season, Megan Walker is no longer on board. A junior, Walker left Storrs early to enter the WNBA Draft, and was chosen ninth overall by the New York Liberty. Coming to an arena near you, the Huskies are led by Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, joined by the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class (behind Oregon) per ESPN, featuring highly-touted freshman Paige Bueckers. On the sidelines, the ubiquitous Auriemma will begin his 36th year at the helm. UConn recruits nationally. Looking at it closer, Philadelphia or New York-based talent weighing a big decision may find the Big East, with its competition and geography, a bit more appealing than UConn’s prior conference address.
Auriemma knows his group will be the target. The UConn coach relishes the scenario, and night in and night out, will get everyone’s best shot. The school is back in the conference where, as previously noted, it enjoyed charter membership. In the Huskies’ most recent address, rivalries were virtually nonexistent, as the AAC was a geographic patchwork quilt of members. In the Big East, there are a number of schools the Huskies enjoyed years of competitive rivalry with. Those schools are not too far geographically from Storrs, giving alums a chance to see their Huskies without making the trip to the Nutmeg State. Seton Hall, St. John’s, Providence and Villanova are a few. In recent seasons, DePaul has provided opposition, as Auriemma and Blue Demons head coach Doug Bruno are very good friends who coached together on United States national teams.
For the last few years, the Big East tournament has been in the midwest, notably Chicago’s Wintrust Arena. With UConn’s return, the conference can head back east on a rotating basis, as UConn has Hartford’s XL Center and Mohegan Sun Arena at its disposal.
For the Big East and UConn, July 1 signals not a beginning, but a rebirth. UConn should never have left the Big East. That is in the past. The issue is closed. After seven years the Huskies are, as the Maxine Nightingale song says, “right back where we started from.”
For both parties, it’s great.