It was another rainy Tuesday in Storrs. The date was January 28, 2020, two months pre-pandemic. I found myself, a freshman, working a night shift at Dog Lane Cafe. As I look to the register, I notice a stack of tickets piled high on the counter. When I asked my supervisor what it was all about, she explained that we (along with other Storrs Center establishments) received men’s basketball tickets to give out to people. The game was for the next night, a Gampel game against Temple.
As someone who has been a UConn men’s basketball fan since a very young age, I was determined to help the team in any way I could, which meant giving out all of these tickets to fill the stands. We must’ve seen 100 people come in for dinner that night, and I made sure to go up to every person there and offer free tickets. Can you guess how many people even took them, much less actually used them?
Evidently, people did not want to see a 7:00 PM Wednesday clash with Temple, something I couldn’t wrap my head around at the time. Look, the team they had in 2019-2020 was very flawed. But despite all of the program’s struggles in the American, how could the self-proclaimed “Basketball Capital of the World” resort to handing out hundreds, maybe thousands of free tickets?
Obviously, it doesn’t need to be said that the women have been carrying their weight of that title. While not winning an NCAA Championship since 2016, they have made every Final Four since then. But the men? Not great.
Fast forward to March 5 of the same year. It was senior night, the Barstool Storm Chasers game and a key matchup against No. 21 Houston all rolled into one. Gampel was the loudest I’d ever heard it as the Huskies took care of business, winning the contest 77-71 thanks to a monster second half. The vibes were immaculate, and the thought on everyone’s mind was how the team was about to run the American Athletic Conference Tournament in their last year before the Big East transition.
Unfortunately, they never got that chance, with the pandemic cancelling all postseason activities across the NCAA.
In their first year in the Big East, UConn placed third overall in one of the deepest conferences in basketball. Outside of DePaul, all of these teams are top 100 in the country, according to Kenpom rankings. Night in and night out, every game is a struggle, and the Huskies did it all with a lingering injury to their star player, James Bouknight. An at-large bid was earned to the NCAA Tournament, giving them their first appearance in the “big dance” since 2016.
Despite losing Bouknight this offseason to the NBA Draft, UConn might have improved their roster, adding the ninth best recruiting class in the country this offseason with four highly-touted four-star prospects. A couple teams they place above in the recruiting rankings include Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas.
On top of this, they start the season ranked No. 24 in the country, their first preseason Top 25 nod since 2016. The Huskies are slated to finish second in the Big East this year only to powerhouse Villanova, with second-team players RJ Cole and Tyrese Martin leading the charge alongside honorable mention Adama Sanogo. Not even making the list are returning studs Akok Akok, Andre Jackson, conference defensive player of the year Isaiah Whaley and conference sixth man of the year Tyler Polley. This squad is loaded with depth.
Perhaps the most important indicator of UConn’s return to prominence was the turnout for First Night this past Friday. This was the first time students saw UConn basketball in Gampel since that Houston game.
And they didn’t miss a beat.
Students filled up almost all of Gampel Pavilion that night (despite the lack of a T-Pain appearance like last First Night), excluding the sections blocked off because of obstructed views. Regardless of a massive hoop malfunction, they were loud, energetic and excited. The players matched that energy and looked like they were having a ton of fun. Earlier that day, women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma said that First Night was all about the students and players, and the intensity found in Storrs on Friday certainly reflected that.
The buzz isn’t just around campus, though. This year, it was announced that an additional 600 season ticket packages were bought for men’s games at the XL Center and Gampel Pavilion combined. Alumni and other fans of the program are more committed to this team than before.
Coach Dan Hurley, the Jon Rothstein-proclaimed carpenter, has done an excellent job taking this team from a struggling Group of 5 school to a Big East contender. To see the massive turnaround of this program in just three and a half years is truly remarkable. The best part is they’re still on the climb. UConn currently has another top 25 recruiting class waiting in the wings for 2022, thanks to new addition and Connecticut native Donovan Clingan.
With almost everything trending in the right direction, the Huskies are looking to improve upon their last season yet again, this time with plenty of fans cheering them on every game. I can’t imagine a situation where UConn will struggle to fill seats this time around, or anytime in the immediate future.