As the Big East Conference crumbled into oblivion, I watched in horror as the likes of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Rutgers – yes, scandal-ridden Rutgers – among others were lured away to greener pastures like the ACC and the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, UConn, which has proven time and again to be the symbol of athletic excellence in the conference, with 76 combined Big East tournament championships and 15 national championships in men’s soccer, field hockey, men’s basketball and women’s basketball since the inception of the Big East, has been left out in the cold.
UConn has been left to pick up the pieces and rebuild the Big East as the American Athletic Conference, with the help of Cincinnati, South Florida and incoming schools such as Temple and Memphis.
The outlook across UConn Country has been rather negative. It has been difficult for fans to watch what has undisputedly been the greatest college basketball conference ever seen destroyed because of an increased emphasis on football, and it has been even harder watching the most dominant men’s basketball school in the Big East get overlooked and left behind to lead the new era of the AAC.
However, the more I have thought about it and the more I watch everything unfurl, UConn is not in a horrible position by itself. There is no doubt that the AAC is nowhere near the Big East in any sport, but from UConn’s standpoint, the situation could be much worse, and the school is showing that the name “UConn” outweighs the name “American Athletic Conference” when it comes to building for future success.
As a basketball school, basketball will be the top priority of UConn and its fans, and it does not seem like the success of UConn basketball is going to become a history lesson that we merely share with our kids.
Only UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana and Duke have more national championships than the UConn men’s basketball team, and only Kentucky has as many in the last 20 years. In women’s basketball, only Tennessee has as many championships as UConn.
There is no doubt that UConn is among the elite basketball schools in the country, and that will not change in the AAC.
Women’s basketball was still in its infancy when the Big East began, so Geno Auriemma was charged with building a program from the ground up. In no time, he had one of the nation’s top programs, and shortly thereafter, he had the nation’s top program.
Even with a loss to Notre Dame in the final Big East Championship Game, UConn dominated the conference almost from its inception. But, especially in recent years, the competition has become tougher. Big East women’s basketball has proven to be the premier conference in the game. The reason? Schools had no choice but to increase their game in an attempt to compete with UConn and later on Notre Dame.
At the AAC meetings down in Florida, Geno Auriemma spoke to his fellow coaches about the possibility of doing what was done in the Big East, as a result of what he calls the standard that UConn set.
Meanwhile on the men’s side of the game, UConn has already demonstrated that playing in a weaker conference will not damage the program as it looks to add to its list of accolades.
After a successful first season to begin the post-Jim Calhoun era, Kevin Ollie has a team that has its mind set on a deep run in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Beyond that, Ollie has the makings of a strong team, having demonstrated that even without the Big East, he can make top players want to play in Storrs.
UConn’s transition to the AAC did not have an effect on recruiting in 2013, as Terrence Samuel, Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah maintained their commitments. All three come in as potential role players that fit perfectly into the Kevin Ollie mentality of brotherhood and a “team first” attitude.
Former North Carolina State guard and the No. 20 player (ESPN) in the Class of 2012, Rodney Purvis, transferred to UConn and will be available beginning with the 2014-15 season. Ollie also recently received a commitment from 2014 prospect Daniel Hamilton (No. 27 ESPN). No. 34 LJ Peak has UConn in his final five. No. 43 UConn is also in pursuit of several big-name prospects such as Goodluck Okonoboh and Ivan Rabb.
Regardless of conference affiliation, UConn is going to find success on the recruiting trail, and will continue to be successful on the basketball court. Ollie is a strong recruiter and a players’ coach. Success is going to be there, whether UConn is playing Syracuse or East Carolina.
There has been a lot of concern that the AAC is going to be an incredibly weak conference. But that does not seem like it is going to be the case.
Again, it is not the Big East, but the AAC is not a horrible conference. Sure, there may be some schools that do not make fans jump for joy, like East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa. But as UConn is a basketball school, look at the basketball conference. A conference with UConn, Memphis, Temple and Cincinnati at the top is far from the worst conference around. There is potential for SMU, Central Florida and South Florida to have success in basketball as well. For those schools, the situation is like the one that Geno Auriemma described to the women’s coaches; If they want to compete with the elites, which in the AAC will be UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati (with Temple the next on the list) from the start, these schools will need to rise to the occasion.
There is a possibility that this will becoming an exciting league to watch, so the worry from fans that UConn is fading into a conference like the Sun Belt or the Horizon is a little over the edge. That is not going to be the case. With a few established programs and several others with potential, there is a chance that we see an evolution over the next few years that turns the AAC into a premiere conference. That is far from a guarantee, but the possibility is there, especially with UConn in the mix. Remember, this is not UConn ‘s first time around the block with a brand new conference.
UConn basketball is going to be fine. The only sport that I see UConn failing to compete for the AAC title in is football, but that is because the program has fallen off in recent years and because many of the incoming members of the AAC focus most of their attention on football. Men’s and women’s soccer will continue to compete for conference titles – and men’s soccer will be on the prowl for a national championship this season. The baseball team is very young and could definitely come out of the gates strong in the new conference. The field hockey team is among the elite programs in the country. Women’s lacrosse is on the rise. The track teams have been incredible as of late. Of course, UConn fans also have hockey to look forward to, as the men are moving into Hockey East, and the women’s team, with a new head coach, have their sights set on a return to the national rankings.
UConn has been one of the nation’s elite athletic institutions for years. Even if the school has gotten the short end of the stick throughout this round of conference realignment, there is no reason to believe that the athletic programs are entering a dark age.