Ah, autumn in Storrs. The leaves are changing, temperatures are dropping and yes, that is basketball you’re smelling in the air. Gampel seems to loom larger and larger as November creeps closer.
UConn basketball has had a rough couple of years, especially on the men’s side of things. Sure, the women’s team doesn’t lose in the regular season and still wins by 40+ points consistently, but at this point, any year they don’t win a national championship is a disappointment. The men’s team, though, hasn’t looked this bad probably since the very first year Jim Calhoun took the reigns back in 1986. It got to the point where Kevin Ollie was spewing Diaco-esque quotes in pressers. And that’s never a good thing.
But things are different this year. The men have a new coach, the women have a vengeance and everyone gets First Night back.
First Night, or Midnight Madness as most schools call it, is purely a hype event. There’s free food and tee shirts for students, a selfie session with players and coaches, a pre-event concert and even a light show. The actual event consists of Hollywood-style player and coach introductions, a dunk contest, a 3-point shooting contest, a half-court challenge and a co-ed, 3-versus-3 scrimmage.
Yeah, it’s loaded. But it’s exciting, and sorely needed.
First Night is essentially a reset for both programs that are currently in an unusual amount of uncertainty. The women’s team hasn’t lost back-to-back Final Fours since 2011 and 2012, and the men’s team hasn’t had back-to-back losing seasons since 1985-86 and 1986-87. Things like this aren’t unorthodox for most programs-- in fact, most teams would kill to make it to the Final Four with the consistency the women do-- but UConn isn’t most programs. UConn is built on incredible success and tradition; things that have been missing from Storrs for the last few years.
The absence of First Night last year due to construction on the Gampel roof certainly was not the reason for both teams’ performance last season, but there’s no question it’s needed this year in the worst way. It’s a chance to feel the fan energy, to show off skills and to forget, just for one night, that there’s so much on the line.
Only four members of the men’s team-- Jalen Adams, Christian Vital, Alterique Gilbert and Mamadou Diarra-- were even around for the last First Night. Even going back to the archives and looking at that 2016-17 roster makes you stop for a second and go “Oh, I forgot he was with the team” for at least five players.
The the Ollie situation and NCAA allegations are still ongoing. They’re probably not going to go away anytime soon. While the final years of Ollie’s regime left UConn in an almost insurmountable hole, First Night is a chance for everyone to remember that that’s not what things are going to be like anymore.
Gampel is going to get loud for Dan Hurley and Geno Auriemma. Nobody’s going to be watching Kwintin Williams perform a highlight reel with their minds on last season. Nobody’s going to boo the women’s team because they lost a heartbreaker to Notre Dame. That’s not what First Night is about.
It’s about getting excited that basketball is back in Storrs. It’s about seeing what Hurley’s Huskies can do. It’s about watching the women do what they do best. It’s about a renewal of excitement for what both teams can accomplish. It’s about the players remembering exactly why they came to Storrs in the first place-- a championship culture full of energy.