What UConn’s expected move to the Big East could mean for its biggest programs

NCAAF

UConn is expected to leave the American Athletic Conference and return to the Big East for basketball and other sports in 2020, sources told ESPN.

The move is not official, but a formal announcement is expected early this week. While we wait, our experts break down what the move will mean for the Huskies’ big programs.

Women’s basketball

A genius trait of UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma and his staff is the ability to psych up the Huskies even for teams they realistically couldn’t lose to. They’ve had to do that a lot in the American conference, where they went 120-0 against league foes over six years.

In that time, just one game came down to a single possession: 63-60 over Tulane on Feb. 18, 2017. This past season, the Huskies averaged 82.8 points in their 16-0 conference slate to their opponents’ 50.9, then won the league tournament by an average of 28.0 points.

You get it: They steamrolled while somehow not sleepwalking. However, the UConn fans understandably sometimes did doze off. Perhaps the NCAA selection committee snoozed a bit on the Huskies, too, this season, giving them a No. 2 seed despite their only losses being to Louisville and eventual national champ Baylor, both in January. The weakness of the American didn’t give UConn any “proving ground” the rest of the way.

Some Huskies followers also have attributed their national semifinal losses the past three years — to Mississippi State and Notre Dame twice – to the lack of tough competition that UConn faces during American play. So will going to a revised Big East be any different for the 11-time NCAA champs? If nothing else, it could be a bit more interesting.

To be frank, though, the UConn women were dominant in the “old” Big East, too. During Auriemma’s first eight seasons, the Big East challenged the Huskies, who went 88-43 in regular-season play and won the league tournament twice. But as the Huskies blossomed into a behemoth during Rebecca Lobo’s career, they took over the league. They went 314-18 in the Big East regular season from 1993-94 to 2012-13, and won 16 of the 20 league tournaments in that stretch.

After UConn’s ascension to a national powerhouse, its primary challengers in the old Big East were Notre Dame and Rutgers, now gone to the ACC and Big Ten, respectively. Louisville is also now in the ACC, although the Cardinals beat the Huskies just once when they were in the Big East. UConn has maintained nonconference series with the Irish and Cardinals.

Among the 10 current Big East teams, the only ones to beat UConn in the last 25 seasons are St. John’s in 2012 and Villanova in 2004. The Big East program historically that’s had the most success against UConn is Providence, which is 21-40 against the Huskies. But that’s misleading: 11 of those victories predate Auriemma’s career, and the last of them was in 1993.

Still, the Big East had ranked teams such as Marquette and DePaul this past season, both of whom made the NCAA tournament. But only one other Big East team — Butler — finished above .500 in league play. And UConn beat its three nonconference foes from the Big East this past season — St. John’s, DePaul and Seton Hall — by an average of 28 points.

Bottom line: UConn still will be an overwhelming favorite in the Big East. But it’s geographically much friendlier and more sensible, and there should be a little more competition, which everyone will enjoy. — Mechelle Voepel


Football

Another historic rivalry bites the dust due to conference realignment. It’s a sad time.

OK, so the Civil ConFLiCT wasn’t exactly Texas-Texas A&M, but UConn’s decision to move its non-football sports from the American Athletic Conference to the Big East marks the most notable shift to the college sports landscape since Louisville joined the ACC in 2014, and it creates some bigger questions about the future.

Where does UConn football land? The AAC isn’t likely to keep the Huskies around as a football-only school, and the Big East doesn’t support football, so Randy Edsall’s program is in purgatory for the foreseeable future. Independence is one option, but it comes with some major drawbacks, including a lack of conference revenue and no defined bowl tie-ins. Still, it might be the best short-term answer as the administration sorts out its other options.

The MAC and Conference USA figure to be the most likely landing spots, particularly if one of those leagues has a team poached by the AAC to fill its vacancy. Still, the geographic footprint — both for rivalries and travel — doesn’t work well in either spot, and a football-only member whose program has bounced somewhere between irrelevant and awful over the past few seasons won’t be the most prized target for those leagues either. Who does the AAC add?

The league has done a nice job of marketing itself as the sixth member of the Power 5 with some strong seasons by the likes of UCF, Houston and Navy, among others, so the AAC can afford to be picky. The best option might be Army, which brings a national fan base and an instant rivalry with Navy. Still, Army’s last go-round with conference affiliation — a seven-year stint in Conference USA that saw the Black Knights compile a 13-67 record — might be enough to keep Army out.

From there, the AAC could prioritize up-and-coming programs in stronger media markets (Charlotte, Old Dominion, Georgia State), smaller programs with a recent history of success (Troy, UAB, North Texas) or focus on recruiting hotbeds that would offer good rivalry opportunities with existing members (Georgia Southern, Louisiana Tech, FIU, FAU).

Will those be the only dominos to fall? The simplest solutions to all this would be for, say, the AAC to add a team from Conference USA, and for Conference USA to fill that void with UConn. But it certainly doesn’t have to be that simple, and some other Group of 5 leagues could use the opportunity to push more dramatic changes. If, say, the AAC nabs Georgia State, would the Sun Belt really want a team from the notably less-sunny Northeast? If the MAC decides UConn is a good fit but doesn’t lose a team to the AAC, would it try to even out its numbers by poaching another program?

The potential names to move won’t be elite, but it’s not crazy to think UConn’s move plants some seeds within other administrations in the Group of 5.

What does this move say about the future of realignment? The last major shakeup in college football was driven by TV revenue, with plenty of quality programs poised for poaching. But the TV landscape has shifted, the gap between the Power 5 and Group of 5 has grown (see the Big 12’s flirtations with expansion in 2015 and 2016), and the dynamics of the next round of realignment seems both inevitable and utterly fluid.

UConn’s move to the Big East reaffirms old rivalries outside of football — the Huskies were original members of the conference — but also illustrates how even a school with a semi-prominent football program might shift its priorities elsewhere. How the football program maneuvers the potential pitfalls ahead might tell us a lot about how much risk other programs are willing to take when the opportunity for bigger shifts arises in the years to come. — David M. Hale


Men’s basketball

UConn men’s basketball and the Big East are intrinsically linked.

For a certain generation of college basketball fan, UConn and Madison Square Garden — even though it wasn’t the Huskies’ homecourt — were a must-see combination. Kemba Walker’s step-back jumper to beat Pittsburgh; Ray Allen’s flailing, off-balance runner over Georgetown in the Big East championship game; the six-overtime game to beat Syracuse; Taliek Brown’s 3-pointer from 30 feet against Pittsburgh; “Madison Square [Ben] Gordon” — that all happened at the Garden.

And that’s not even counting any of the Huskies’ games against St. John’s. UConn won five Big East tournament titles in a nine-year span from 1996-2004, filling Madison Square Garden on every occasion. The Huskies still played there three times last season. It just has a different feeling when UConn is in town. And the Big East has a different feeling when the Huskies are in the conference.

Aside from the nostalgia factor, though, it’s a massive win for both sides. For UConn, it’s a far better geographic fit. The Huskies will face some of their old foes (St. John’s, Villanova, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall) while adding the midwest arm of the Big East to their schedule. But there won’t be Tulanes and East Carolinas on the docket anymore. No offense to those schools, they just weren’t strong regional pitches for UConn in recruiting.

Now Danny Hurley can go into a prospect’s living room and tell them he will be playing up to 15 games within driving distance, plus the Big East tournament. That’s far more attractive to recruits from New York and New Jersey, where the Huskies used to recruit heavily — and where Hurley has his roots.

It’s a boost for the Big East as well. The league has exceeded expectations since the “new” Big East was formed in 2013, and the upcoming campaign could see a handful of teams ranked around the top 25 heading into the season. But adding a national brand like UConn will help its overall profile, not only because of the Huskies’ success over the past 20 years, but because of the renewal of rivalries. All those regional matchups against St. John’s and Villanova and Providence and the rest of the old Big East members are going to add extra pop to the league schedule.

UConn didn’t exactly run roughshod over the American Athletic Conference, failing to ever finish above third in the conference standings — even during their national championship in 2014. But the Huskies also never quite felt at home in the AAC, and their status as one of the premier programs in college basketball took a hit after winning four national championships in a 15-year span. That may have happened regardless following Jim Calhoun’s retirement and UConn’s unsustainable stretch of titles, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that the Huskies got lost in the shuffle a bit during realignment.

The Huskies still have work to do to return to their perch as one of the best programs in the country, but at least they’re back home now. It’s a start. — Jeff Borzello

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