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BIG EAST coaches react to UConn’s return

For the first time since 2013, the University of Connecticut will don BIG EAST patches on their jerseys. The Huskies formally rejoined the conference July 1.

During conference realignment in 2013, UConn switched to the American Athletic Conference, with the members of the “old” BIG EAST: Cincinnati, Temple and South Florida. The BIG EAST’s seven basketball-focused private schools — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova — added Butler, Creighton and Xavier to become the “new” BIG EAST. Seven years later, they are back and a part of the BIG EAST. 

“It was only right that UConn’s in the BIG EAST,” Xavier men’s basketball head coach Travis Steele said. “UConn’s had huge moments and is a huge part of the BIG EAST and the history of the BIG EAST. To get them back part of the BIG EAST is awesome. We’re excited.”

Under head coach Dan Hurley, the men’s team edged Seton Hall for fourth place by two points in this season’s Preseason Coaches Poll. In 2019-20, UConn won nine of their last 12 games and finished with an overall record of 19-12.

“The program, where it’s at now with Danny, it’s definitely on the rise. They have great players,” Seton Hall men’s basketball coach Kevin Willard said. “It’s only going to make this league better.”

Hurley said being back in the BIG EAST gives the program a recruiting edge.

“The return to the BIG EAST has been a really incredible infusion of energy. Just a real, much-needed jolt for the fanbase, for the program,” Hurley said. “We were already recruiting at a very high level, but it certainly has enhanced that and just added to the excitement level surrounding us.”

For DePaul men’s basketball head coach Dave Leitao, UConn’s addition hits close to home. Leitao spent six seasons as associate head coach under Jim Calhoun and helped the Huskies amass a 156-51 record, as well as beat Duke to win the 1999 NCAA Championship.

“Them entering back into the BIG EAST is monumental because (of) the success that they’ve had as a major force in this league,” Leitao said. “I compliment Coach Hurley for quickly returning back to a style of play and a physical nature — the things that UConn has stood for.”

During women’s basketball team’s seven-year absence from the BIG EAST, the Huskies won seven AAC Tournament titles and went 118-0 in conference play. When UConn was in the BIG EAST last, the Huskies earned 19 regular season titles, won the BIG EAST Tournament 18 times and head coach Geno Auriemma was a 10-time BIG EAST Coach of the Year.

“It’s been something that obviously everybody at our school and the state of Connecticut has been excited about, being back in the league,” Auriemma said. “The players that we have now have never played in the BIG EAST, so they really don’t have the history that my coaching staff (has).”

Eight of the program’s 11 national titles came when the Huskies were a member of the BIG EAST.

“I hope they don’t let their guard down here, our guys are ready to play them,” BIG EAST Commissioner Val Ackerman said.

Although DePaul women’s basketball head coach Doug Bruno said he believes UConn women’s basketball is the best program in the history of college basketball, that does not mean teams can slack off prior to BIG EAST play.

“I still think you have to play a tough nonconference schedule even knowing that you’re going to come up against a difficult opponent,” Bruno said. “We can’t just soften it up now because we’re counting the two games that we’re going to be playing against UConn.”

Seton Hall women’s basketball head coach Tony Bozzella said the league is difficult is because everyone plays each conference opponent twice, if not three times.

“Except for the Pac-12, the other Power 5 conferences all play each other usually only once,” Bozzella said. “We play each other twice, a lot of time three times. That makes it so much harder because there’s adjustments made, you’re playing on the opponent’s floor. … With that being said, it’s going to be hard to win our tournament. It really is. So you damn well better have a good non-league schedule so you can get in that large bid.”

UConn will challenge the rest of the BIG EAST not only with their play, but also by giving athletes the opportunity to play in a sold-out arena when fans are allowed again.

“You get to play in an atmosphere that’s going to be like a Final Four situation,” Georgetown women’s basketball head coach James Howard said. “It’s a win-win for all of us.”

Marquette women’s basketball head coach Megan Duffy said all coaches and players in the league are competitors. Xavier women’s basketball head coach Melanie Moore said UConn adds depth to the conference.

“Great competitors want to play against the best each and every night,” Duffy said. “Geno coming into our league as the top coach in the country and his players and his talent is only going to rise the level in the entire BIG EAST.”

Also for the next three years, the BIG EAST Women’s Basketball Tournament will be hosted at Mohegan Sun — the home of the Connecticut Sun.

“We’re so looking forward to the ability to capitalize on what UConn will bring to us not only on the court, but also in terms of the interest level surrounding their program,” Ackerman said.

At media day, many coaches explained UConn’s return is significant because the BIG EAST is a basketball-centric league and the Huskies’ return only strengthens the conference. Providence women’s basketball head coach Jim Crowley said it raises the national profile of the BIG EAST.

“The beauty of the BIG EAST is the authenticity of the BIG EAST, that every school is a basketball school,” Villanova men’s basketball coach Jay Wright said. “Every school in the BIG EAST has been to the Final Four. So when that’s our strength and you put UConn on top of that, it just multiplies the value of the BIG EAST.”

This story was written by Zoe Comerford. She can be reached at isabel.comerford@marquette.edu or on Twitter @zoe_comerford

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