by Conor GeregFollow @UCONN4x
STORRS- The billboard on the interstate proclaimed, “HOME”. Residing just below the bold declarative font was UConn’s Jonathon the Husky trademark, remarkably comfortable amongst the iconic university logos featuring the Georgetown Hoya, Villanova’s Wildcat, and the Providence Friar, just to name a few. The collection of schools together at once looked ethereal and perfectly clustered together on the glowing signage. The billboard promised more than just a return among the venerable brands of college sports, it promised resolution to the long and winding road the University of Connecticut spent the past seven years navigating.
ESPN’s 2014 fabled Requiem for the Big East deserves a sequel. And the powers at the WorldWide Leader most certainly won’t be making one. With the breakup of the original Big East came the fissures of a media deal that sent the once impervious 16-team league scrambling, universities scattering like shrapnel amidst the college sports landscape, each school navigating the television landscape in search of the largest media deal. As schools splintered off, so did the once happy marriage the Big East Conference held with ESPN, a network that then went out of their way to marginalize the seemingly newly formed league. Divorces can be ugly. This was no exception. The breakup with ESPN and the schools that benefited from the Big East’s ties with the network sent schools like West Virginia to align themselves out west with Texas, and Oklahoma of the Big 12; Syracuse positioning itself with the ACC, a conference headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina, a galaxy away from the comfortable confines of Madison Square Garden. UConn’s role in all of this is a narrative Nutmeggers know all too well. UConn was the last school left standing in this high stakes game of musical chairs; while many of its former counterparts found new homes in established leagues, UConn was forced to manufacture its own conference made up of leftovers: The American Athletic Conference. Seven years of Tulsa, Tulane, and East Carolina, wore thin quickly. As time passed it seemed the only thing that united UConn to its conference peers was an equal desire to escape for greener pastures.
June 2019 marked UConn’s bold move to the Big East thanks to creative negotiating and otherworldly scheduling to appease the lone sport the Big East doesn’t sponsor at the FBS-level: football. With UConn football’s new life as an independent, UConn athletics back home in the Big East is the type of healthy distraction Connecticut residents crave amidst a spring and summer complete with a pandemic and civil unrest.
While the names of schools you’ll read about below are familiar, a few things have changed, albeit one thing is for sure: this collection of schools is damn refreshing to see. Let’s take a tour of UConn’s new neighborhood.
Butler – Few programs have benefited more from 2013’s realignment than the Butler Bulldogs. The Big East has brought exposure to a program now at the apogee of their basketball powers, feeling right at home following years in the Missouri Valley, Horizon League, and a brief stint in the Atlantic 10. Last season’s top-25 NET ranking is thanks to scheduling the 19th most difficult slate in the nation, highlighted by pre-conference tournaments like the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Arena, in downtown Indianapolis, home of the Pacers. This annual pilgrimage to “The Bank” is host to a quartet of powerful in-state basketball brands, Indiana, Notre Dame, Purdue, and Lavarr Jordan’s Bulldogs. Games like these speak to Butler’s many built-in metric boosting matchups that help to maintain the Big East’s gaudy NET data (helpful for a league that held an average NET ranking of 38.10–nearly 14 points higher than the second strongest conference, The Big Ten which held an average NET rating of 51.36).
UConn fans won’t ever forget 2011’s Championship win over Brad Stevens’ squad though the Bulldogs have proven to be a quality foe beyond their back-to-back championship appearance in 2010 and 2011, earning a place among the Big East’s most successful brands throughout the decade. Prior to a mid-season swoon this past season, Butler held firm to a top-15 ranking, albeit the Bulldogs have lost some significant pieces from a team that notched 10 Quadrant I victories. Nevertheless, Lavall Jordan has reloaded in Indy, reeling in a top 40 recruiting class, per 24/7 sports. In terms of the macro view, the Bulldogs reinforce the Big East’s presence beyond the northeast and their home, Hinkle Fieldhouse is an athletic gem, built in 1928 and remodeled in 2014 thanks to a $10.4 MM investment, the Bulldogs play in one of the league’s top venues. Television fails to capture all of the venue’s aesthetics, but the glass partition enclosing the upper bowl of Hinkle gives the appearance of fans floating above the hoop, a feeling Butler fans have grown familiar with since realignment.
Creighton – 1,300 miles away from Connecticut, in the backyard of one of our country’s wealthiest icons, the Oracle of Omaha’s Warren Buffet, resides one of the Big East’s most formidable foes. Much like Buffet himself, the Blue Jay are rich in talent ever since they were added to the league for the 2013-2014 season, earning a spot in the Big East title game in their very first season. Before UConn fans gripe about travel to the nation’s 40th largest metro area, let’s remember that annual 1,700-mile trips to Dallas were part of the docket while in the AAC, and a perpetually respectable Creighton team will make the trip a metrics booster come tournament time. A trip to the daunting Blue Jays arena, the CHI Center of Omaha, will perhaps prove to be one of the biggest challenges for Hurley’s Huskies, a venue that’s known for surefire sellouts and a boisterous level of fandom. (A side note for basketball fans to consider, UConn’s prized baseball program will play their annual Big East tournament in Omaha, home of the College World Series, so at least there’s that). Entering this coming season Creighton will once again find themselves atop of this version of the Big East, a team that returns four starters from a team that earned the top seed in March’s conference tournament. Had guard Ty-Shon Alexander opted to return to Omaha rather than depart for the NBA draft, there’s an argument the Blue Jays are not only the top team in the Big East, they’re the top team in the nation. Even without Alexander this Creighton team features a Conference Player of the Year candidate in Marcus Zegarowski (16.1 PPG & 5.0 APG), a Tilton School (Mass.) product and half-brother of former NBA Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams. The Blue Jays are loaded once again and a near certainty to make noise yet again this season.
DePaul – Coach Dave Leitao will call Chicago home for the foreseeable future after inking an extension that will keep him at the helm through the 2023-2024 season. UConn fans will forever hold a soft spot for the well-traveled coach, a New England native and key cog in Calhoun’s Northeastern Huskies system from 1978-1982. Laeto was there alongside Calhoun from 1996-2002 as an assistant in Storrs prior to parlaying the role into a head coaching gig at Depaul (yes, this is Leitao’s second stint in Lincoln Park). The Blue Demons haven’t had much success to show of late (surprise!–apparently not much has changed since we’ve been away) though DePaul does have the sparkling 2017 Wintrust Arena to call home and one of the top returning players in the league in sophomore and top-75 recruit Romeo Weems (8.0 PPG & 4.9 RPG). Weems, a consensus 2021 first-round projected pick, will have the weight of a program squarely on his shoulders, a program that hasn’t known the NCAA tournament since 2004. UConn came to know the Blue Demons in 2005 as the realignment machine brought mid-western brethren Marquette alongside Louisville, South Florida, and Cincinnati. The Huskies will enjoy reuniting with Leitao though DePaul will assume the role of spoiler once again vs the league’s elite.
Georgetown – So many of UConn’s fabled memories take place among the navy and powdered gray of Georgetown. Ask the common fan which Big East team we’re most excited to reunite with? Villanova and St. John’s may garner a few votes but the history of Georgetown is hard to ignore. Flashback to fall of 2018 and Georgetown seemed a team on the precipice of triumph. A backcourt of talented sophomore guards in James Akinjo (a former UConn commit prior to the Ollie departure) and human highlight reel Mac Mclung. A year later, both young stars have left the program, as has a slew of other talented players, leaving fourth-year head coach and Hoya iconn Patrick Ewing to pick up the pieces. The Big East might prove to be an annual metrics darling with its gaudy cumulative NET rankings but in order for the league to wield its power at the optic level, Georgetown needs to find their footing. Georgetown is still a basketball brand and getting them back to historic levels will only bolster the league’s standing among the nation’s elite. More immediately, the Hoyas will likely find themselves projected to finish last in Big East preseason rankings and the cavernous Capital One Arena (UConn fans will remember this venue as the MCI center) will look emptier than ever. The Huskies are sure to draw a crowd through their tour within the league though Georgetown won’t look a thing like we remembered. At least not yet.
Marquette – The Golden Eagles enter their 16th season in the league, qualifying for postseason play in 13 of those years. In other words, Marquette has been as steady as any program in this version of the Big East. Enter year seven for former Duke top assistant Steve Wojciechowski who, at age 43, seems to be on the short list of possible Coach K replacements in Durham. Or at least he was at one time. “Wojo”, a former 1994 McDonald’s All-American, hasn’t dominated the recruiting rankings, and in turn, the win column like Golden Eagles fans would have wished (though this lapse in recruiting has been short lived–he’s the architect of the league’s top incoming class, per 247 Sports though prior to this year, recruiting hasn’t been seller, slotting in at 5th in 2019, and last in 2018). Marquette has assembled a merely pedestrian resume since UConn’s been gone, not once advancing beyond the opening round of the NCAA tournament since Buzz Williams was at the helm in 2012-2013. If Wojo and Co. are going to live up to expectations they’ll have to plug a hole the size of Lake Michigan considering they’ve lost the Big East’s all-time leading conference scorer in Markus Howard to graduation. Howard, a Gilbert, Arizona native (also the birthplace of former UConn forward Gavin Edwards), averaged a gaudy 27.8 points per contest last season which will place added pressure on incoming freshmen like Dawn Garcia, Justin Lewis, and Osarere Ighodaro. Marquette will await their fate on the eligibility of former top-50 guard DJ Carton who departed Ohio State following his freshman season. The NCAA has yet to determine if Carton is eligible for a waiver which would allow him to play immediately. If Carton has the green light to suit up in blue and gold this winter, Marquette will be back in the mix and poised to cause headaches for opponents.
Providence – Before conference tournament play was suspended in March, the Friars seemed destined for a 6th NCAA tournament in the last nine years under coach Ed Cooley. It’s been some time since Providence enjoyed such a sustained level of success, in fact, you’d have to go back to the Rick Pitino mid-80’s Final Four run to find the program better situated than they are now. Having PC back in the fold gives UConn an immediate rival on a variety of levels. The immediate and most natural grounds for this rivalry is merely at a geographic level. UConn’s sojourn to the “Dunk” is a mere 50 miles, immeasurably refreshing in contrast to the “Texas Swing” that brought UConn west in the AAC for Houston, SMU, and Tulsa. The UConn-Providence matchup holds another compelling layer when you consider the Rhode Island connection that once linked Hurley and Ed Cooley. The Friars are an annual tournament contender under Cooley and these teams can now pencil in a pair of local games to bolster their collective strength of schedule metrics. UConn may be able to hold a 38-27 all-time advantage over the Friars, but the most recent past most certainly favors this New England rival.
St. John’s – Alongside Georgetown, a fellow founding member of the league, St. John’s has struggled to gain any consistent traction of late. Perhaps the program’s nadir was last summer’s scramble to find a replacement at head coach following the parting of legendary player turned coach, Chris Mullin. The Johnnie’s made a run at the elder Hurley brother, Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley, and when they came up short they swung and missed time and time again, publicly turned down by Loyola Chicago’s Porter Moser, just 12 months removed from his improbable Final Four run in 2018. Enter Mike Anderson, hired a season ago at age 59, following an eight-year run at Arkansas where he accumulated a .624 winning percentage. Anderson, a 17-year assistant under the fabled Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson in Fayetteville, has the impressive claim of never coaching a losing season, winning a total of 386 games at UAB, Missouri, Arkansas, prior to landing in The Big Apple summer of 2019. That record of consistent winning may be especially difficult to preserve in 2020-2021. Not only does St. John’s lose former 5-star talent Mutapha Heron to graduation, but the Red Storm also lose leading scorer LJ Figueroa to the transfer portal. The loss of these two talents, among others, leave St. John’s in an all too familiar spot. Regardless, UConn reuniting in New York will mean games outside of St. John’s natural home of the 5,600 seat Carnesecca Arena, and instead under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. It’s good to be home.
Seton Hall – Dan Hurley’s alma mater has enjoyed life in this latest rendition of the Big East. The Pirates haven’t missed the NCAA tournament since 2015 and have won 20+ games each of the last five years. Suffice to say, these aren’t the Seton Hall Pirates UConn remembers (nevertheless, the Pirates still trail the all-time head to head series 18-44). The ball has yet to tip and already Seton Hall and UConn have fought the first round of what will be an epic heavyweight bout. Incoming UConn big-man Adama Sanogo seemed to be a recruiting certainty for the Pirates but then UConn, touting their Big East brand, came swooping in during the months of March and April to ultimately court the big man to Storrs. The next round between these heavyweights will feature a Seton Hall team that lost Conference First-Team star, Myles Powell. Powell, a one time Kevin Ollie recruiting target who opted to stay home to his native Newark, totaled 2,252 points during his Seton Hall tenure. UConn seems to have dodged Powell’s wrath but will instead contend with a team that still appears formidable, anchored by 6’11’ senior Sandro Mamukelashvili (18.2 points/40 MPG) and Harvard transfer Bryce Aiken.
Villanova -In the six NCAA tournaments since realignment that fractured the original college basketball landscape, a team outside of the “Power Five” football leagues has won that title in three of those six tournaments. Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats are responsible for two of those, and yours truly, UConn is responsible for the third (had Gonzaga knocked off North Carolina in 2017 we’d be talking about four of the last six titles belonging to schools outside the football-school conference power structure). Entering the 2020-2021 season Villanova could make an argument as the pre-season #1 team in the land considering the swath of talent returning. These Wildcats return four double-digit scorers (and possibly a fifth if potential lottery pick Saddiq Bey return for his junior season). Should Dan Hurley continue UConn’s trajectory, there’s every reason to believe that a UConn vs. Villanova in-conference matchup can merrit one of the best rivalries in college basketball. Jay Wright will pick up his 600th win this winter (currently 593 wins) and until Hurley’s Huskies can knock off these Wildcats, Villanova will bear the Big East torch.
Xavier – The Queen City touts a pair of basketball powers in Xavier and Cincinnati, one of the nation’s most entertaining annual rivalries. Trips to southern Ohio certainly aren’t new to UConn and the Huskies should expect a challenge each time out considering the Musketeers history of winning. Xavier’s sustained level of success can be attributed to an impressive lineage of head coaches. Take for example the previous five coaches at Xavier, all of whom have gone onto successful new jobs: Pete Gillen (1985-1994; Providence & Virginia), the late Skip Prosser (1995-2001; Wake Forest), Thad Matta (02-04; Ohio State); Sean Miller (2005-2009; Arizona); Chris Mack (2010-2018; Louisville). Xavier seems to have yet another winner in coach Travis Steele whose 19 wins, exceeds that of Sean Miller while he was at the helm (17 wins in Miller’s rookie coaching season at Xavier). Steele appears poised to make yet another leap this coming season, reeling in the second best recruiting class in the Big East for 2020 according to 247 sports, 22nd nationally, following the 27th best national recruiting class in 2019. As Steele continues to stack up talent, the Musketeers will challenge the Huskies for an NCAA tournament berth, Xavier qualifying for postseason play in 9 of the previous 10 seasons. Here’s the best part of being part of the Big East: there are plenty of NCAA tournament bids to be handed out as Xavier, as well as UConn, should be punching their March Madness tickets come Selection Sunday.