Friar Basketball

Just Say No to UConn


Let’s face it, UConn and the Big East just grew apart.

UConn was the Big East’s girl next door, its caterpillar turned butterfly — an unlikely national power that churned out NBA stars and won national championships, but eventually became the one who would have done anything for a seat at the cool table. The cool table has always been football in college athletics, and the Huskies have been staring across the room longingly for over a decade.

You’re the Big East and you knew it had to be done. It was over, had been for quite a while, but you just couldn’t find the right time to call it off.

It felt good to do it before she had the chance. She was with you out of convenience and a lack of better options.

Like any breakup it would take a while before you found your footing again… and naturally, you were going to keep an eye on her as much as you claimed you didn’t care.

Which leads us to today. We’re entering the fifth season since the Big East’s breakup with UConn and all of the other football-obsessed universities that for so long controlled the direction of their league.

The Big East has found solid footing after initially being not-so-subtly jeered by the football conferences and the television network that force-fed all of them down our throats.

So, why are we once again talking about UConn and the Big East rekindling a relationship that neither one of them wanted at the end?

CBS’ Jon Rothstein floated the rumor again last week, and I’m here to tell the Big East that friends don’t let friends reunite with their awful exes. You were unhappy together for a reason.

Two years ago, I would have welcomed Connecticut back to the Big East, albeit begrudgingly. I would have been doing so due to some combination of fear and nostalgia. Mostly fear.

As badly as I wanted the league to succeed, the early returns were troublesome to someone who grew up loving everything about the Big East.

In year one of the realigned conference the league sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament. Their stay was short-lived.

Xavier was gone in the play-in game and Providence fell late to North Carolina in its first game. The league still had a two seed in Villanova and the nation’s best player, Doug McDermott, leading third seeded Creighton.

McDermott’s career ended with a 30 point loss to Baylor in the second round, and Villanova was also bounced in the second round by (sigh) UConn.

Then we all sat and watched as the Huskies rolled to a shocking national championship — their fourth in a 15 year span and first with new head coach Kevin Ollie — in the first year of the cobbled together American Conference.

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. Wasn’t UConn supposed to be downgrading?

As awful as being under the thumb of the football schools was, so many of us were content to stick by them because they kept the Big East relevant.

Our biggest fear was losing our relevance — and there were troubling signs early.

Providence’s thrilling win over Creighton in the 2014 Big East Tournament helped mask the fact that that title game drew 15,290 fans — roughly 4,000 under capacity for a basketball game at Madison Square Garden.

Attendance dipped for the 2015 Big East title game, with Villanova defeating Xavier in front of 13,471.

The 2015 NCAA Tournament was a step forward for the league, with six schools making the field. Xavier and Butler both advanced to the Sweet 16, but 2015 still felt like a missed opportunity.

Villanova was a one seed that couldn’t get past North Carolina State in their second game. Fourth seeded Georgetown (amazing how much can change in two years) fell to Utah in their second game, while #6 Providence lost to an 11 in Dayton, and St. John’s was handled by San Diego State in an 8/9 game.

The sting of the breakup had begun to fade, but we weren’t quite ourselves again.

The Big East took small steps forward in the first two seasons post-realignment. Still, ESPN’s college basketball ratings dwarfed those of Fox Sports 1. With the looming threat of the ACC making a play for Madison Square Garden for its conference tournament combined with the Big East feeling like a March Madness afterthought, this league needed a little something more in its third year.

2016 was the turning point. A sellout crowd of 19,812 saw a rising Seton Hall program upset Villanova in the conference title game. Providence knocked off USC at the buzzer in the first round of the NCAAs, Butler beat Texas Tech and gave top seeded Virginia all it could handle in the second round.

The Big East had a pair of two seeds in Villanova and Xavier that appeared ready to go on the March run that the league so badly needed in its quest for legitimacy.

Villanova exorcised its demons and quieted the league’s detractors by running through, and over, schools from the “Power 5” football conferences in that tournament.

There was an 87-68 win over a dangerous Iowa team in the round of 32.

Then a 92-69 beating of Miami, a third seed from the ACC, in the Sweet 16.

An upset of top seeded Kansas to reach the Final Four followed, which led to Nova’s 44 point drubbing of Oklahoma and All American Buddy Hield in the National Semifinal.

And finally this.

In 2017, the league sold out the Garden for the Big East title game for the second year in a row, saw seven of its 10 members make the NCAA Tournament, while Butler was a Sweet 16 team and Xavier reached the Elite Eight to prove that this is far from a one team league.

The appeal of Connecticut is understandable to an extent. Few programs in the country share their national championship cache, or run of NBA players over the past 25 years. Their fanbase would take the Garden to another level in March, which would keep the powers that be in New York happy.

Connecticut offers a lot — the old school rivalries, a strong NBA presence, the potential to add a program with national cache, and another strong partner to take on a field that leans far too heavily in the football programs’ favor.

The Big East is rolling now, and at the very least, Connecticut is one heck of an insurance policy in the event that one of the league’s better programs falls off as quickly as Georgetown has the past two years.

Deny it if you will, but you miss the nastiness of the old Big East. The schools in the reconfigured conference were pushed so far into a corner by football that it created a bond and camaraderie amongst these schools. They genuinely root for each other, which is great, but the league’s reputation was built on a sheer dislike of one another. The ratings skyrocketed in the 80’s because of it. UConn is a ready-made bad guy.

For a while she’s the girl next door again, with the qualities you appreciated all of those years ago.

Maybe you can trust her again.

Maybe she’d make you a better person.

Maybe you just always wanted different things.

Twitter: @Kevin_Farrahar



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