Ryan Bologna is a member of the UConn Class of 2021
The UConn men’s basketball program became a powerhouse in the late 1990s and early 2000s by building an identity under their coach Jim Calhoun. Part of that identity was they were part of the best basketball conference in the country in the Big East.
UConn’s first stint in the Big East was successful, as they finished atop the conference in the regular season 10 times and won the conference championship seven times. The program won three of their four national championships as a member of the conference as well. Today marks the official return to the Big East conference for the university.
At the start of this decade some of the conference’s key members in Syracuse and Pittsburgh left the conference for the Atlantic Coast Conference, and seven remaining Big East schools left to create a new basketball-focused conference and bought the rights to the Big East conference name.
That left UConn in the American Athletic Conference, formed of some remaining schools from the old Big East and other schools from around the country that received invitations. Although UConn won a national championship in the first year of the conference’s existence in 2014, the following years would show that a return to the Big East is a better fit for the school.
UConn’s struggles since the 2014 national championship can’t all be blamed on the conference. Kevin Ollie’s tenure as head coach started out very good, but after 2014, the team made the NCAA tournament one out of four years. In Ollie’s final two years as head coach in 2017 and 2018, the team had two consecutive under .500 seasons. The team hadn’t gone under .500 since Jim Calhoun’s first season as coach in 1986-87.
This led to Ollie’s firing and UConn hiring their current coach Dan Hurley, who has energized the fanbase with his intensity on the sideline and a team that plays with an energy that reflects that intensity.
Hurley has also brought excitement through his recruiting classes. Last season Huskies fans saw the impact that three freshmen Akok Akok, James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney made on the court. Hurley brings in a recruiting class for 2020 that is ranked 2nd in the Big East according to 247Sports. Multiple players in this class cited the return to the Big East as reasons for choosing to play at UConn.
UConn’s return to the Big East is seen with the way the fanbase has reacted since the announcement last summer. As per the university’s release from June 18, men’s basketball has sold 1,000 new season tickets and that is during the middle of a pandemic with the real possibility of games without fans or no games at all.
Playing against schools UConn has rivalries with historically and is closer to geographically than the schools they played in the American Athletic Conference, along with a team that looks to be on the upward trend has generated excitement along with a team that looks to be on the upward trend.
Talking to fans around campus and at Gampel Pavilion during games last season, many expressed excitement for being about to go to the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden like they used to.
The excitement level of students surrounding the return to the Big East and the men’s basketball program in general was as high as I had seen it since I became a student at UConn when the season was coming to a close. I walked past Gampel Pavilion on senior night after a class, about two and a half hours before tip off, and students were already lined up outside to try and get the best seat possible when the gates opened.
The UConn Men’s Basketball program is building positive momentum and the fanbase is taking notice. The return to the Big East and the program’s roots combined with the optimism of a new energy at coach in Hurley and young exciting players have sparked that momentum.