by John Furgele
The Connecticut Huskies have won the NCAA men’s basketball championship four times. In the 1990s, they made steady progress under Jim Calhoun and in 1999, beat favorite Duke to claim national title number one. The 77-74 win was considered an upset but that Huskie team was very talented led by point guard Khalid El-Amin and future NBA star Richard “Rip” Hamilton.
In 2004, the Huskies won again, this time as the favorite. They beat Duke in an epic semifinal then cruised past Georgia Tech in the title game. And, coupled with the uber success of the women’s team, the basketball universe was centered in Storrs, CT.
The Huskies then won two more titles as underdogs. Calhoun’s third title saw them win five Big East conference tournament games and then six more to finish the season on an incredible run. Led by Kemba Walker, UConn took down Butler in the title game. And, finally, new coach Kevin Ollie guided the Huskies to their fourth title in 2014, once again, in improbable fashion. That team was dead to rights in their opener against St. Joseph’s (PA), but regrouped, and as a seven seed cruised the rest of the way which included an impressive win over a young, but very talented Kentucky team.
The 2014-2015 Connecticut team failed to make the NCAA tournament and the future could be uncertain. In the 1970s, Connecticut was a basketball wasteland. In 1979, a four letter network called ESPN rose up from middle-of-nowhere Bristol and helped put Connecticut basketball on the map. Back then, Connecticut played games against Holy Cross, and Assumption and wasn’t very good.
Calhoun arrived in the mid-1980s after having success at Northeastern and in 1988, the Huskies served notice by the winning the NIT championship. Soon, they were playing on the big stage, losing to Christian Laettner in a buzzer-beater in the 1990 East Regional final and getting agonizingly close to making it to a Final Four.
Connecticut helped make the old Big East back in 1979. The classic nine team league featured Syracuse, Georgetown, St. John’s, Pittsburgh, Providence, Seton Hall, Boston College, Villanova and Connecticut. The regular season games, part of Big Monday were legendary, as it became must-see TV. Who could forget “The Sweater Game,” in 1985 when Georgetown coach John Thompson wore the same sweater as St. John’s coach Lou Carnesseca?
Eventually, the college sports bus would be driven by football and the Big East started to have infighting. Even though it was a basketball league, the football teams were making more money than the basketball-only teams. The Big East bloated to 16 teams and eventually had to be broken up. When the dust had cleared, most of the “original 9,” found suitable homes as did the late arrivals like Louisville and West Virginia. Connecticut tried to push in to a Power 5 conference. They wanted into the ACC and would have settled for the Big 12, but for some reason, landed in neither. The result was the American Athletic Conference, a nice 11 team membership, but not the Big East, the ACC or the Big 12.
The American has some solid programs. Cincinnati is good as is Memphis and Temple has always played sound basketball over the years. But, the American is not an elite conference and it won’t send six teams to the NCAA tournament like the Big 12 and ACC, and for that matter, the current Big East.
Connecticut’s fourth championship came as a member of the American Athletic Conference, but one must remember that the players on that team were recruited as “Big East,” players, which at the time was a power conference. The last two years has seen a slight erosion of talent in the Nutmeg State. The Huskies lacked the firepower to keep up with the bluebloods last year and this year, they are just 5-3.
There are over 30 conferences in college basketball. After the Power 5, there is the Big East, the Atlantic 10, and the American. These are the eight best conferences in the land, but the American is closer to eight than one. There was a time where Connecticut could recruit the 5-star player to come to Storrs because they had the cache of the Big East and of course, the signature Madison Square Garden.
They don’t have that anymore. The recruit who once chose Connecticut over Indiana and Duke likely won’t do so going forward. Connecticut was never a basketball blueblood, but they were more than just a spoiler, too. They had their own cache because they bagged four titles over a 15 year span and that is not easy to do.
We all know how basketball works. When a Temple plays Wisconsin, we hope that Temple can win, but we don’t expect it. When Wichita State makes the Final Four we hope they can win, but in the end, it doesn’t happen. In our minds, we wished that Gordon Hayward’s half-courter swished in against Duke, but in reality, we knew it wouldn’t. Even in 1998, we hoped that Utah would have hung on against Kentucky, but in the end, they didn’t.
Basketball is not football. The Butlers, George Masons, VCUs and Wichita States can make runs; in some cases all the way to the final. But, as good as these schools have been, none of them have broken through and that goes for the talented Memphis squad that lost to Kansas in the 2008 final as a member of Conference USA.
Connecticut is probably in the conference that best suits them for football and other sports, but they have basketball pedigree and that could be in jeopardy going forward. This is not a knock on the American Athletic Conference, but reality is reality. In the end, star high school players are looking to go to a school that can win the NCAA title, or that very least, play in a big-time conference.
The Connecticut women may someday feel this as well. Louisiana Tech was once the dominant women’s program back in the AIAW and early days of women’s inclusion in the NCAA, but eventually the big conferences took over with Tennessee, Stanford and Connecticut dominating. The American will never be a big-time conference and deep down both Kevin Ollie and Geno Auriemma know this.
As I watched Connecticut take on Maryland at Madison Square Garden and lose 76-66 tonight, I couldn’t help but think of them as St. Bonaventure to Maryland’s Syracuse. The Bonnies kept it close against Syracuse last week only to be overwhelmed at the end. Is Connecticut turning into a St. Bonaventure?
The leaders at the University of Connecticut say the right thing. They are proud members of the American Athletic Conference, which contrary to my thoughts is a good conference. But, I wonder if basketball-wise they are worried about where they are and more importantly, where they need to go. They have four titles, but those were when they really were a big-boy in college basketball.
Are they still?