This week, Daily Campus Sports remembers the nostalgic highs of the old BIG EAST Conference, while also asking ‘where did it all go wrong?’ This is Big East Week.
The Big East Conference holds a special place in the hearts of many people associated with UConn, and some of its former media constituents are no different. The Daily Campus Sports section will be full of anecdotes and conjecture this week. By reaching out to former Daily Campus writers and editors who grew up following and, in some cases, eventually covering those glory days, fresh and fascinating perspectives can be found. Three core questions were asked and answered in order to paint a broader picture of what has become what some would say is a messy past, present and future.
1) In your opinion, what made the Big East great?
Meghan Bard, A Dime Back, UConn ’03, (@meghanbard)
The Big East was great because it was all basketball schools playing a tough, physical version of the game and each year the conference produced some of the best teams in the country. See also: getting home and homes every year with longstanding, geographically close rivals, getting amped for when Syracuse was coming to Gampel, not having Tulsa on the schedule ever. And, of course, the greatest thing sports has ever produced: the Big East Tournament in MSG.
Tim Fontenault, ESPN, UConn ’15, (@tim_fontenault)
Pre-realignment Big East men’s basketball was the best conference in the history of college sports, better than today’s SEC football. Eight or nine teams would regularly make the NCAA Tournament, and in 2011 that number hit 11 (out of 16). The proximity of schools made the rivalries genuine. One-and-dones were uncommon, too, so there were chances to see something resembling character development – players becoming heroes and villains across the conference – over three or four years. It was brilliant. You knew the characters. You knew the history. There was nothing better, nothing like it. And every year it concluded with a five-day extravaganza at MSG that, for me, was more exciting than the NCAA Tournament.
Dan Madigan, SB Nation, UConn ’17 (@dmad1433)
The Big East was great for a lot of reasons; it began with legendary coaches that were involved from the beginning like John Thompson, Rollie Massimino and Lou Carneseca, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun. Later on, coaches like Jay Wright, Mike Brey and John Belein helped the conference maintain its reputation as the best conference in basketball. In a sport dominated by coaching, having so many marquee names in one place led to better players, competition and teams year in and year out.
The proximity of all the teams (especially compared to the American) makes a big difference too. From UConn’s perspective, being a relatively short drive away from schools like Rutgers, Seton Hall, Providence and Boston College made it easy for fans to travel and led to some raucous crowds throughout the years. Of course, the cherry on top of it all was the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. It’s darn near impossible to top the environment the Garden provides come tournament time and the old Big East tournament never disappointed with incredible moments night in and night out.
Aaron Torres, The Athletic, UConn ’07 (@aaron_torres)
What made the Big East so great back then was a lot of what made the SEC so great in football six, seven, eight years ago. It was just the best. Home to the best players, the best coaches and the best teams. I remember Jim Calhoun telling me once that he believed winning a Big East Tournament was harder than winning an NCAA Tournament, and honestly it’s not hard to see why.
When I was at UConn here is a list of the coaches who were there: Future Hall of Famers like Calhoun (obviously), Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins and Jay Wright – and the funny thing is, Villanova wasn’t even that good at that time. Certainly not like they are now. At that time, here are some of the other guys who were in the league: Buzz Williams at Marquette, Mike Brey at Notre Dame, Jamie Dixon at Pitt and Mick Cronin at Cincinnati. I mean seriously, are you kidding me? Come on! How did anyone win in that league? Like, ever.
But what it meant was that night in and night out, we as fans and students got to simply experience the best of the best. We saw great teams, but great basketball and great minds and every game felt like a huge game… mainly because it was. Gampel and the XL Center (then, just the boring old “Civic Center”) were routinely filled and rocking, not only because UConn was good, but also because the other teams were so dangerous.
It really was a special time and a fun time to be on campus. I wouldn’t trade my experiences at UConn for anything.
2) Do you have a specific memory or story, perhaps from your time the beat, or as a fan, you feel is representative of the Big East?
Fontenault: There are so many. Being a UConn fan from birth, I’ve seen so many incredible things. If I have to choose one moment, then being at the final Big East game against Syracuse in 2013 narrowly beats out being at the 2011 conference championship game against Louisville. It’s impossible to describe the emotion in the XL Center that night; most games that season were like that, with the ban and everything else going on. But being Syracuse – a top-10 team, our biggest rival – in the final showdown, that was our championship game. I was in my usual spot: first seat, first row of the student section, leading chants with all the energy I could muster. From the tip, you could tell there was something special about that night. UConn, incredibly, got the win. We screamed. We hugged. We cried. The players were over in the student section hugging and high-fiving us. That win was emotional for every student, whether we were playing or cheering. I’ll never forget Ryan Boatright’s mic drop after the game: “They’re leaving the Big East with a bad taste of UConn in their mouths.” We could have gone 1-29 that season, as long as that one win was the final clash with Syracuse. Thankfully, there were 19 other wins and I will always consider 2012-13 one of the best seasons in UConn men’s basketball history.
Matt Zampini, ESPN, UConn ’16 (@Matt_Zamp)
I can’t offer anything from what it was like to cover the Big East because that was before my time. But, three memories come to mind: When Shabazz Napier hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer against Villanova in 2012. They had just allowed Nova to tie the game on a layup and then Bazz comes down and drains the 3 inside midcourt to win in. Plus, a little “Onions!” from Bill Raftery on the call made that one even more memorable The UConn-Syracuse 6 OT game in 2009. I just remember staying up late watching that entire game with my dad and having to be up early for school in the morning. And obviously the Kemba Walker step back on Gary McGhee in 2011. I just remember being in school when that game was going on and everyone going nuts in the hallways because the teachers let us watch (Thanks, Xavier). Among many, those are the three that stand out the most and will never forget.
Madigan: While I never covered any UConn games during the Big East era, I was lucky enough to catch a few conference tournaments at MSG when I was a kid and loved every second of it. The atmosphere was incredible, the games lived up to the hype and the overall experience really helped me fall in love with basketball at a young age. There’s too many great UConn moments in the Big East tournament to list out here, but to me, the regular season games were just as special. I’ll never forget the UConn game against Syracuse at Gampel in 2012, which to this day is the loudest I have ever heard Gampel (and featured a great flash mob from the student section). The UConn-Georgetown game during the 2012-13 season might just be my all-time favorite. Even though it was a loss, there was a great buzzer beater from Omar Calhoun to force overtime and the battle between Deandre Daniels and Otto Porter. The crowd at Gampel was electric and it was a classic back and forth Big East matchup.
Looking back at it, that was the beauty of the Big East. Pretty much every regular season game mattered, had good crowd energy and was competitive (except for the ones against DePaul) on the men’s side. The women’s conference featured two historic programs in UConn and Notre Dame and perennial contenders in DePaul, Villanova and Rutgers, providing a fair share of quality matchups. Nowadays, the American has some talent at the top, but the gaps between the good and bad teams are much bigger than they ever were in the Big East.
Bard: My favorite Big East memory from my college years is actually a WBB game: the 2001 Big East Tournament Championship in Gampel Pavilion. The Big East women’s tournament used to rotate between Gampel and the RAC before it went to the Civic/XL Center. Anyway, this game was epic. Senior Shea Ralph went down with a knee injury (it was horrible) so emotions were running high. Sue Bird hit a half court buzzer beater at the end of the first half and then went coast-to-coast off a made Ruth Reilly free throw to hit a pull up at the buzzer to win the game. To this day, I have never heard Gampel louder. Fire this puppy up on uconnhuskygames.com, you are welcome.
Torres: I never actually covered the UConn basketball beat while I was at school, but it didn’t keep me from having a lot of great memories. I’m not sure if anyone besides me would remember this or not, but the first ever “College Gameday” for basketball was actually at Gampel Pavilion in the winter of ’05 (following UConn’s title run the previous year). I can’t remember if UConn won or lost, but they played Pitt in what was a Top 15 matchup.
In terms of my “best” memory on campus, it probably came in 2006 when UConn played Villanova at Gampel. UConn was actually ranked the No. 1 team in the country a few weeks before and lost at Villanova (they had Kyle Lowry, Randy Foye and Allen Ray at the time).This was the return game when Nova was ranked No. 2 nationally, UConn No. 3 and the Huskies were looking for revenge. UConn was probably the most “talented” team in the country that year (they had Rudy Gay, Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong, Denham Brown etc.) and this was by far, the best game they played. It was also the craziest that I’ve ever seen Gampel. I mean, it was just absolutely bonkers. Never been to a game quite like it.
UConn ended up winning that game 89-75 in a game which honestly wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated. Unfortunately, it was also the best they’d play the rest of the year. That was the season which ended in an Elite Eight loss to George Mason, still the low point in my life as a sports fan.
3) General thoughts on the American and UConn’s athletic endeavors going forward.
Zampini: I think people are overreacting with this whole “the AAC is holding UConn back” narrative honestly. It didn’t stop Wichita State from being good in the Missouri Valley and it isn’t stopping Gonzaga in the WCC. There’s still good teams in the AAC, UConn just hasn’t been good the past couple years. Obviously, it would be better to be in the Big East, ACC or one of these other Power 5 conferences, but I don’t think it’s necessary for UConn to be what it once was.
Fontenault: First things first: the leadership of the American does a fantastic job. Mike Aresco, Danielle Donehew and the rest (many of them Big East holdovers), are making the best of a tough situation. As a reporter during the early American days, I appreciated my working relationship with the conference. I think it’s a good conference when compared to others. I don’t agree with the “POW6R” mantra, but I believe it is vastly superior to the rest of the Group of Five while being a respectable distance behind the Power 5. As a UConn fan, I feel like we’re sitting in Purgatory and nothing good is ever going to happen again. I want to be optimistic and believe like Dan Hurley that UConn can rely on the power of our own brand, but all the measurable data points – attendance, results, etc. – make me worry. The only teams I’m not worried about are the men’s and women’s hockey programs, which are doing quite well in Hockey East.
Torres: Look, obviously everyone misses the old Big East and hopes that in time, UConn can somehow find their way back into the current iteration of the Big East. We all get that. But I think the plight of UConn, relative to the AAC, is greatly exaggerated.
You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve argued with over the last few years (including many smart, prominent voices in the national media) about how much of UConn’s lack of success the last few years had to do with the conference. The simple truth is that for all the talk about the American, it has been a multi-bid NCAA Tournament league in every year of its existence. This year, they got three teams in and in reality, two should have advanced to the Sweet 16. Had Houston not given up a buzzer-beater and Cincinnati given up a historic comeback, two of the three league teams would have been amongst the final 16. And that doesn’t even include the fact that SMU probably would have gotten in as the league’s fourth bid had they stayed healthy injury-wise.
Looking ahead, I actually think this conference is going to be reallllly competitive going forward. We know that Wichita and Cincinnati will pretty much, year in and year out, always be good, and UConn is on the way up with Dan Hurley. Same with Memphis and Penny Hardaway. That’s four building block programs (at least in my opinion) that are, more or less, national name brands. All four of those schools can schedule nationally, recruit nationally and should – in most years – be able to put together a resume that warrants an at-large bid even if they don’t win the AAC conference tournament title.
Point being, the future of the AAC looks bright. It isn’t the old Big East. Nothing will be. But it isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be either.
Bard: The American makes me sad. Geographically it makes no sense and having to deal with Houston and Tulsa fans is not what our proud program deserves. Financially, the AAC doesn’t bring in enough money to pay the bills, so long term UConn has to make some hard choices about what the realistic future for our athletics program. In short: Make UConn Villanova.
Madigan: The American will never be as good as the old Big East was in basketball and UConn fans will be the first to remind anyone of that. However, it’s clear that the conference is improving in football and in basketball. Schools like UCF, Houston and USF have had success nationally on the gridiron and proved that the American is a worthy football conference, and if UConn does have to stay in the American, there is a path to build up the program, bring in quality recruits and win games year after year. Even with this, leaving the conference is a necessity for the long-term success of the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the athletic department as a whole. As it stands now, UConn cannot bring in enough money as a member of the American to sustain its position as one of the largest athletic departments outside of the Power Five. If UConn wants to remain an athletic power, it will need a Power Five invite in the near future. For now, David Benedict and the rest of the athletic department simply have to do the best and make the most money with what they have.
Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.