MBB: The Big East community reacts to UConn’s return at media day

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UConn is back in the Big East conference, where it was an original member from 1979-2013. We’ve known this for a while now, but on Wednesday, the Big East basketball community got together (virtually) for the first time with UConn included for media day with the men’s basketball programs. 

UConn was a topic of conversation around the conference, with mostly everyone welcoming the Huskies back with open arms. 

“We could not be happier to have the Huskies back at home,” Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said to open the day. “For the first time since our realignment seven years ago, we have a new school, but it really is an old school … The transition of UConn back into the Big East — coronavirus notwithstanding — has gone very smoothly, and we’re certain that Husky basketball, men and women, will help allow us to maintain our high perch in the college basketball world for many years to come.” 

During his availability, head coach Dan Hurley talked about what it means for the conference to have UConn back. 

“UConn is gonna add one of the most passionate fanbases in the country,” Hurley said. “You’re adding a recent tradition in the last 20 years, which is top five in the country in terms of National Championships and producing lottery picks and first round picks [in the NBA Draft]. I see UConn doing nothing but enhancing the league.” 

Many of the coaches around the conference agree with that sentiment, including the Big East’s longest tenured and most respected head coach, Jay Wright of Villanova. 

“The beauty of the Big East is the authenticity of the Big East that every school is a basketball school,” Wright said. “We are basketball schools, it’s the biggest thing that’s happening on campus. So to add UConn to that, which is a great basketball school … it just multiplies the value of the Big East.” 

DePaul’s head coach Dave Leitao, who spent two separate tenures as an assistant coach at UConn under Jim Calhoun, also praised UConn’s return, as well as Hurley’s rebuild of the program. 

“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. “The things that UConn has stood for, [Hurley] has quickly returned to, as well as having a really good team … I’m looking forward to seeing some old faces and just enjoying the experience, because I know the positivity of UConn in the Big East has been such a wonderful thing nationally for college basketball.” 

In addition, head coach Ed Cooley from Providence, UConn’s most local opponent in the conference, is looking forward to renewing the regional rivalry. 

“Excited to have Connecticut back as it’s a regional game for us,” Cooley said.“They’re an original Big East member. It’s a natural fit. It’s gonna be exciting to compete, to go to Gampel and/or Hartford. The fanbase on both sides will be excited to play one another … It’ll be a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to competing against a very, very good basketball team.” 

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Head coach Travis Steele from Xavier, who beat UConn last year in a double overtime thriller in the Charleston Classic, said he told Hurley after the game that it was a preview of the Big East. He said it just feels right now that UConn is officially back. 

“I think it was only right that UConn’s in the Big East, it should be,” Steele said. “You think of all the great players, coaches … all the big-time shots at Madison Square Garden during the Big East Tournament. 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 is awesome. We’re excited. It’s only gonna make the best league in the country even that much better.” 

The excitement doesn’t stop with the coaches either. Both James Bouknight and Isaiah Whaley, two of UConn’s expected top performers this season, said that playing in the Big East means a lot to them. 

“Being from New York, playing in the Big East has always been a dream of mine,” Bouknight said. “Just being able to play at home in front of my family … Just playing in the Northeast has always been a dream of mine.”  

“For me, being someone who studies the history of basketball and college basketball, knowing the rivalries between the Big East schools, it’s super exciting,” Whaley said. “Especially being a part of it is gonna be really exciting for us. So just knowing the history makes it a lot more exciting.” 

Bouknight added that the move to the Big East factored into his decision to return to UConn for his sophomore year. 

Other players around the conference expressed their excitement to play UConn, including the preseason pick for Big East Player of the Year, Marcus Zegarowski from Creighton. He grew up in Hamilton, Massachusetts, and became very familiar with UConn when his brother Michael Carter-Williams played at Syracuse, the Huskies’ old Big East rival. 

“I think it’s a great addition,” Zegarowski said. “UConn is a great program. They were in the Big East. I grew up watching them. I grew up watching Kemba [Walker] … It’s awesome. They’re a great program, they got a lot of great players and I’m excited for the battles.” 

For some players like Xavier senior captain Jason Carter, it’s the memory of playing UConn in the past that generates excitement. 

“I know for me personally, seeing the fanbases and how into the game they were, especially it being a neutral site, the fanbases showed up [in Charleston] and made that game so much more intense,” Carter said. “I know I’m excited to play them twice a year now. I think they’re a great add for the conference, and I think it’s gonna be a great rivalry going forward. I know I can’t wait for those games.” 

For others like St. John’s sophomore Julian Champagnie, it’s more of the sense of familiarity with both individual players and the program as a whole that makes him eager to play against UConn. 

“It’s cool stuff,” Champagnie said. “Growing up, I watched UConn a lot. I know a couple of players on UConn and some of the coaches. So having them back in the conference is gonna be fun. It just adds another team to the list that we can’t wait to play.” 

Champagnie said he knows Bouknight, Richie Springs and Tyrese Martin either from high school or through mutual friends. Hurley said this regional familiarity with players is exactly what makes recruiting and engagement better in the Big East.  

Hurley knows the Big East extremely well, growing up in New Jersey, playing at Seton Hall and spending the entirety of his coaching career in the Northeast. He said the best part of playing in the Big East is that every game is high-profile. 

“Everyone’s watching Big East basketball,” Hurley said. “This is national stage games. This is absolutely no nights off home or away. You could lose any game because top to bottom, there’s just no nights off in a conference like this.” 

It seems that everyone’s on board with UConn returning to the conference where they had so much success for over two decades. The Huskies will officially make their “re-debut” in the Big East when they host St. John’s on Dec. 11. There was a lot of talk about UConn at media day, but perhaps nobody summed it up better than Bouknight. 

“UConn belongs in the Big East. Everyone knows that.” 

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