Image credit: (Photo courtesy of UConn)
Connecticut this month officially moved back to the Big East, and all at once, the Huskies felt a little more at home and the Big East felt a bit more like the Big East.
The Huskies’ return to their former conference after seven years in the American Athletic Conference was a move primarily aimed at supporting basketball, but it also could be mutually beneficial to their baseball program and to the league from a baseball standpoint.
“We’re excited for a new challenge,” said coach Jim Penders, who played for and coached UConn in the Big East prior to realignment. “(I’m) looking forward to seeing some coaches that I’ve known for a long time.”
What’s inarguable is that it’s a good fit from a culture perspective, and for those with a nostalgic streak for the conference, Penders included.
“I’m a nostalgic guy, and it’s the conference that I grew up in, even before I played in it,” Penders said. “I remember watching some great battles with UConn and Providence College and St. John’s, Boston College, Seton Hall at J.O. Christian Field in Storrs when I was still in high school.”
When you start to dive into the conversation about whether it’s better for the program from a competitive standpoint, things get a bit murkier.
The move will make it more difficult for the Huskies to build a postseason resume, given the relative quality of the American. The collective RPI of that league is good enough that you don’t have to do much more than enjoy an above-average season in conference play to have a shot at a postseason berth. And every year, you can count on three or four AAC teams taking part in regionals.
Compare that to the Big East, which in 2016 had a Creighton team that went 13-5 in conference play and 38-17 overall sitting at home for the postseason.
“We had proven in (the American) that if you’re in the top half, you’ve got a great chance to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Penders said. “The Big East isn’t there right now, but they have had multiple bids in different years.”
But there are also aspects of the move to the Big East that will help the Huskies continue to compete at a high level.
For instance, one may think that leaving a more competitive conference would hurt UConn in recruiting, but it’s not that straightforward. While the American is full of strong college baseball programs, the Big East has powerful brands of its own, especially in UConn’s Northeastern recruiting footprint. And with the American still being a relatively new conference that’s outside of college football’s Power Five structure and therefore not on TV as often, Penders said a basic explainer of the conference was often necessary.
That kind of rundown won’t be necessary with the Big East.
“To be honest, we would spend the first five minutes of most of our recruiting visits explaining who was actually in our conference,” Penders said. “People didn’t really know us as belonging in that conference.
“Actually, ironically, it’s going to be somewhat more attractive to recruits that (they) know St. John’s, and it might be because they are used to seeing basketball, or Seton Hall. There’s a familiarity with the schools in our neighborhood, so to speak.”
While it’s more fun to discuss the on-field aspect of this move, you have to consider the potential budgetary savings that being in the Big East could bring as well. No athletic department is safe from the negative impacts the coronavirus pandemic has had on budgets, but UConn has felt it even more profoundly than most, with the school cutting four sports in June.
In the American, UConn’s closest baseball opponent, by mileage, was East Carolina. But anyone who has made the trip to Greenville, N.C. can confirm that it’s not as simple as getting on a plane and arriving at the ballpark or team hotel a couple of hours later. There will still be significant bus time ahead of the team once the plane lands in North Carolina.
There were simply no bus trips for the Huskies in the AAC. While that might be fun and exciting early in the season, especially for freshmen, that many flights over the course of a few months can be a grind, and those lengthy trips can really add up on the travel budget.
In the Big East, trips to places like Xavier, Creighton and Butler will still require UConn to get on a plane, but it will be a big improvement overall.
“Being on busses is going to be a lot nicer, (and) I never thought I’d say that,” Penders said. “There were only four weekends a season where we were not on a flight. As far as the student-athlete experience goes, I think it’s a little bit easier, for instance, just getting home from St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova and have dinner (at home) on Sunday night. Normally we’d be getting back to Storrs around 3 in the morning on Monday.”
At the same time UConn was dealing with the unique geography of the American and all that went with it, the Big East was trying to find its footing after a massive round of realignment from 2010-2013 that pulled quality baseball programs like Louisville, Notre Dame, South Florida and West Virginia away.
Some, like UConn, moved to the American, which was created when the basketball-first members of the Big East broke off to form their own basketball-centric league, leaving the FBS football institutions to create a new league.
In short, those few years of realignment drama were chaos, with the projected membership of the Big East changing all the time.
St. John’s coach Mike Hampton was an assistant at the school at the time and remembers it being difficult to keep up with everything going on, which forced him and the rest of the staff to take the approach of just having to wait and see how it all shook out.
“Just, ‘Hey, whoever’s in the league, I don’t care, let’s just get after it,’ ” Hampton said. “I’m always that way. It’s just the same way as when we’re setting up our nonconference schedule. We’ve always just tried to play the best teams we can possibly play, and we’ll go anywhere to do that.”
The changes were bad news for the Big East from a baseball standpoint. Expecting the league to weather those types of losses and continue to operate at the same level or even show improvement would have been foolhardy.
Given some time, though, the league steadied itself thanks to St. John’s continued excellence and the infusion of some new blood into the ranks, namely Creighton and Xavier, which immediately became two of the Big East’s better programs. In terms of quality, the end result is the conference has settled into a place somewhere on the upper end of the mid-major spectrum.
“I think that it’s getting better all the time,” Hampton said. “For where our league is right now, I think when Butler came in, Creighton came in, I think Butler’s definitely better now than when they first came into the league. I think the same thing with Xavier. They were always pretty decent, but I think they’re even better now than when they first came into the league.”
Just once since the massive realignment ahead of the 2014 season has the conference put more than one team into regionals in a single season, but its teams typically contend to win the regional once they get there. A Big East team has advanced to a regional final four times in the last six seasons, and only once in that same span has a Big East team gone 0-2 in a regional.
It hasn’t had a team break through to a super regional since Louisville did so in its last year in the league in 2013, and among current members, St. John’s last did it in 2012, so while the Big East isn’t currently pumping out national title contenders annually, its teams are more than competitive in postseason play.
Throwing UConn back into the mix will only help. The Huskies have been to the postseason six times since 2010, and in 2011, they advanced to a super regional while still playing in the Big East.
Continued success will also come with residual RPI benefits for everyone, which could help the league get multiple teams into regionals more often than it does now. UConn has had an RPI outside the top 100 just once since 2008. Granted, it might be harder for the Huskies to keep a high RPI as a member of this version of the Big East compared to the American or the previous iteration of the Big East, but you can all but bank on the program doing what’s necessary to build an at-large-quality RPI.
“With the addition of (UConn) coming back into the conference, to me, I think it’s a great thing,” Hampton said. “They do a great job of recruiting, they just got a new stadium up there, I look forward to the competition.”
One potentially overlooked benefit for the league, however, is that adding an eighth team to the mix will allow the conference to go to a 21-game conference schedule rather than the 18-game schedule it has recently employed, which would take some scheduling burden away from coaches and take randomness and clustering out of the regular-season standings.
For the 2021 season, the Big East is a strong candidate to be part of a regional scheduling alliance that will supersede a traditional conference slate, but even if that is the case, as soon as the Big East goes back to scheduling conference games normally, this would be an easy change to make.
On paper, the move seems like a win-win. The Big East will instantly become more competitive, and while UConn may get dinged here and there as a result of playing in a less competitive conference than the American, when you look at the big picture for the program, the move makes sense. Penders is certainly among those with an eye on the big picture.
“Immediately, it was like, ‘Well, I think it’s the best thing for our university, so it has to be the best thing for baseball,’ ” he said.