Exactly seven years ago the University of Connecticut officially became a member of the American Athletic Conference.
Over the ensuing 2,000-plus days, the majority of Huskies fans bemoaned their beloved and bygone Big East fellowship, hopeful but perma-cynical things could ever go back to how they once were.
If you can't smugly look down on the Providence Friars within the cozy confines of a shared conference, what guiding purpose is there to life?
Today, 2,557 days removed from July 1, 2013, UConn is officially back in the Big East. The multiple necessary votes to make this a reality came in the summer of 2019, meaning the ramp-up for a celebratory re-inauguration had been building for essentially a year. But the official changing of allegiances here on July 1, 2020, marks a rare instance in that a university and a conference have admitted their initial mistakes in the mass-realignment craze of the 21st century and subsequently course-corrected.
So congratulations, UConn and UConn fans. You made good. I anticipate seeing many an Andy Dufresne GIF on Twitter from UConn honks throughout the day. Other schools have too much pride to own their gaffe, but at least Connecticut mostly acknowledged its identity crisis and can return to its rightful place.
"It's a chance for us to go into a conference where you're playing in big-time arenas with big-time crowds home or away every single night against some of the best coaches and the best players in the country," UConn coach Dan Hurley said. "By doing that we're obviously doing a really good job of elevating our talent and elevating our culture. And now we're elevating our program by going into the best basketball conference in the country."
In a way, this had to be the first renewal of vows. Of all the schools to sever longstanding league ties, UConn lopping itself off from the Big East -- in the impolitic pursuit of football glory and money -- was the least sensible decision of them all. Thanks to missteps in football, and now in a depressed economic climate compounded by the devastating effects of the coronavirus (the school just cut four sports: men's cross country, men's swimming and diving, men's tennis and women's rowing), UConn has a long haul back to economic stability.
Joining the Big East is a humongous start.
"Obviously a big step up for us," Hurley said. "It gives us the platform to play 20 times during the conference season. You can go back to Madison Square Garden. That's a magical moment. The best college basketball conference tournament, I think which isn't debatable."
The question becomes: Will UConn simply slide back into the upper echelon of the conference? We know that will be the case on the women's side with Geno Auriemma, who has built the most impressive basketball dynasty in the history of that sport. In fact, Auriemma's crafted UConn women's hoops into an operation only second in historical college basketball dominance to the imperial days of UCLA's reign under John Wooden.
But on the men's side, is Hurley's program due for some rude reacquaintance? When last we saw UConn in the Big East, Kevin Ollie was in his first season -- held back by a postseason ban for transgressions committed in the thawing winter of Jim Calhoun's Connecticut tenure -- but nonetheless finishing tied for seventh in a Big East that boasted these eight 2013 NCAA Tournament teams: Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Villanova and Cincinnati. Five of those eight teams are no longer in the Big East.
Now UConn will be observed to see if it can walk back into the league and prove to be high-level -- right there with Villanova, if not one shelf just below. That is the bar for UConn fans and they will hastily hold Hurley to it.
"It's definitely the biggest challenge for me but I think, you know, as a player or as a coach, you come to a place like UConn and into the basketball programs because you want to challenge yourself to see if you are truly elite," Hurley said. "For me it's incredibly motivating. It's something that is inspiring. For me to be responsible for uplifting a university or state, and knowing -- having lived here for a couple years now -- knowing the pride that the state has in the Huskies, and my role in kind of helping the university in the state, I relish the opportunity. It's an opportunity to do something special for a lot of people."
When realignment came and the Big East fractured, UConn was asked to be the torchbearer of the American. On the whole, the Huskies failed that charge. But UConn did -- and although it seems a bit fluky, it can't be undersold -- most notably win a national championship in 2014 in its first year as a card-carrying AAC member, doing so as a No. 7 seed.
With its American days over, here's the vitals of Connecticut's seven-year case file in the AAC:
- Record: 142-98 (.592)
- Conference record: 76-66 (.535; tournament games included)
- NCAA Tournament record: 7-1 (with NCAA title)
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 2
- NBA Draft picks: 3 (DeAndre Daniels, Shabazz Napier, Daniel Hamilton)
Not good enough, no way. Still, I fight against the notion that UConn became truly irrelevant in the past four or five years. It wasn't a top-30 program, but it's still UConn and it still carries cache. If it was trending toward irrelevance, those concerns have ebbed. Fruits of the reunion have already blossomed for Hurley. For example, UConn recruits nationally but has been able to find something of a return to form in targeting the mid-Atlantic. And instead of trying to make a case for an eclectic and quality basketball league with the American, the Big East mostly sells itself.
"Like, they see now we're in, we get the benefit of of that brand name recognition, because obviously kids from the areas we're at our strongest in recruiting, they know exactly what the Big East is," Hurley said. "In a lot of cases they've always wanted to play in the Big East or dreamed of playing in the Big East and, just for us, it's it's a part of our recruiting pitch to prospects that, in the past we've had to make a case for or talk around."
One example of this is Andre Jackson, an incoming freshmen who was a top-50 2020 prospect and should start next season, if and when college hoops can get going. If the Huskies weren't headed back to the Big East, it's plausible Jackson would have wound up playing at a different school in a big conference. (Syracuse certainly was heavily involved.) Jackson headlines a freshman class ranked 21st nationally.
"He's a top-flight talent like (James) Bouknight, a two-year-max player here," Hurley said.
Aside from the massive achievement of winning the 2014 title -- and a shoutout to Jalen Adams hitting a 65-foot shot to force a fourth overtime in the 2016 AAC Tournament -- the only other positively major headline for UConn in the past seven years is the 2018 hiring of Hurley. Beyond that, plenty of bad. Slumps in ticket sales. Troublesome budget issues in Connecticut, which affects UConn as the primary state school. NCAA sanctions due to poor oversight from Ollie, plus an ongoing and ugly legal battle between Ollie and UConn (his alma mater, by the way) because the school doesn't want to pay Ollie the money he believes he's owed.
It's been a mess.
Sounds funny but it's true: Hopefully brighter days are ahead for the only school in men's college basketball with four national titles in the past 20 seasons. A founding Big East school returns, and even if 2020 brings daily reminders that nothing is normal anymore, at least something in college sports feels right again.