<
>

What a move to the Big East means for UConn women's basketball

Even if UConn rules the new Big East as expected, the league should provide more competition, shorter road trips and a better experience for fans. Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It isn't the dream that UConn women's basketball fans wanted -- going to the ACC -- but the move to the "new" Big East is still a good thing for the Huskies program, both for the immediate future and for long range.

The high-stakes game of conference musical chairs -- motivated by football -- of the past several years ended some longtime rivalries, erased some logical geographical ties, and left some schools with few desirable options. Hence the launch in 2013 of the American Athletic Conference, a league that's rather like a drawer of socks that don't match.

In women's basketball, it put the 11-time NCAA champion Huskies in a conference in which they've gone unbeaten -- and mostly unchallenged -- for six years (120-0). To be fair, the Huskies also dominated the previous incarnation of the Big East for their last 20 years in it, going 314-18 in the league regular season from 1993-94 to 2012-13, and winning 16 of the 20 conference tournaments in that stretch.

And the current Big East no longer has programs like two-time NCAA champion Notre Dame, Final Four participants Rutgers, Louisville and Syracuse, and 12-time NCAA tournament participant West Virginia.

No one will confuse the new Big East with the old Big East. Coach Geno Auriemma said as much this week when talking to reporters at a charity golf event, pointing out that conference affiliation, as far as he's concerned, has no impact on UConn's success.

But even if the Huskies rule this Big East as expected, it at least should give UConn a better framework for maintaining fan interest, including road trips that aren't that far, such as to Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova. And maybe it helps prepare the program for the day when Auriemma is no longer coach.

We're not saying that's coming anytime soon, but Auriemma turned 65 this year. You get the sense, though, that the Huskies' losses in the past three national semifinals have invigorated him. It's tougher than ever to win a national championship in women's basketball, even for the program that has been the best at it. The most self-motivated, great competitors still need challenges, and the Final Four defeats have provided that for Auriemma.

You can expect there are more NCAA titles in his future, and that whenever he hands off the program it will still be a powerhouse. But that status won't be guaranteed after he leaves. We've seen throughout college sports how difficult it is to replace a legendary coach, even those without the gargantuan success he has had.

And in UConn's case -- barring another move -- the program will have to keep pace even though it's not in a Power 5 conference. It's one thing for the Auriemma-led Huskies to do that, because he is so established. It will be much harder for his successor, no matter who that is.

Women's basketball's early champions were mostly smaller schools, before the commitment came from those in what we now call the power conferences. But that changed, and even programs with established fan bases and many years of considerable success, such as national champions Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion, fell back to the pack. Louisiana Tech's most recent Final Four was in 1999, ODU's was in 1997.

Could such a thing happen to UConn? It seems less likely, considering how big the program's footprint is in women's basketball (not just in college, but professionally), the commitment of its fans and the school's proximity to major media markets. But it could happen.

So how might the Big East make a difference? It might provide a little more competition.

St. John's and Villanova are the only current Big East programs to beat UConn in the past 25 seasons. DePaul and Marquette, the two Big East teams that went to the NCAA tournament this year, are a combined 1-24 against UConn -- and that one victory was by the Blue Demons in 1983, when neither Auriemma nor DePaul's Doug Bruno were at those schools.

But this past season, the Big East was sixth in RPI, the American ninth. Having UConn in the Big East will elevate the league's RPI, and playing UConn theoretically should make the league's best programs better. That happened in the old Big East. And it probably happened more in the American than it seems, but that was obscured because the Huskies never lost.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, and UConn has been able to maintain that in the American. Observers might get bored by the Huskies' blowout victories, but recruits don't care. Elite players want to go someplace they can win and get prepared for a pro career, and UConn's track record in both is exceptional. It will be as long as Auriemma is coach.

Still, perhaps over the next decade, this version of the Big East will grow as a women's basketball conference. UConn would lead that, but also could benefit from it. And the stronger the Huskies' league is, the better it should be for UConn whenever it has to transition from Auriemma.

And it's important to note that this could be good for the American and its remaining schools, especially South Florida, four-time runner-up to the Huskies in the American tournament.

That might sound contradictory, considering the positives of UConn's presence in a conference. But now, the American champion is no longer a foregone conclusion. So perhaps that can work to the advantage of the top programs in that league.

Ultimately, none of what has happened with conference realignment ever took into consideration how it would impact women's basketball, or other sports. All the moving was always about football and money. Some women's basketball programs got great landing spots and some didn't. But they all had to make the best of it.

UConn has, and will keep doing that. And the Huskies will be headed to a league that makes more sense.