Berry Tramel

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Connecticut basketball: There is life after the Big East

by Berry Tramel Modified: April 4, 2014 at 2:15 pm •  Published: April 4, 2014
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Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie runs drills during practice for the team's NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Friday, April 4, 2014, in Dallas. Connecticut plays Florida on Saturday, April 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie runs drills during practice for the team's NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Friday, April 4, 2014, in Dallas. Connecticut plays Florida on Saturday, April 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Connecticut has won three NCAA titles in the last 15 years: 1999, 2004, 2011. The Huskies also made the 2009 Final Four. And regional finals in 2006 and 2008.

It’s hard to picture UConn as a school that could use a boost in basketball. A school that needed something good to happen on the hardwood.

But that perfectly describes Connecticut, which is in the Final Four in Arlington, Texas. The Huskies play Florida on Saturday night.

And it’s something Connecticut desperately needed. Just for morale.

No school has suffered more than has UConn in conference realignment.

Look at where Connecticut was in 2011, when conference realignment was just percolating. Nebraska had announced its intention to jump to the Big Ten and Colorado the same to the Pac-12. But nobody really had been hurt by conference realignment.

In January 2011, Connecticut was a member of the Big East and played in the Fiesta Bowl. In March 2011, UConn won the NCAA basketball title. The Huskies were at the apex of their athletic prowess.

They were in a football league with an automatic berth into the BCS. Not a great conference, but not bad. Louisville, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Syracuse, Cincinnati. Some decent football schools. UConn was in a basketball league with those schools, plus Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova and St. John’s.

Three years later, the landscape had changed. The Big East’s non-football schools had fled, taking the Big East name with them. Pitt and Syracuse had gone to the ACC, and Louisville is going. West Virginia’s in the Big 12. Rutgers is headed to the Big Ten.

Connecticut was left in the newly-named American Athletic Conference. Louisville for one final year. Cincinnati. South Florida. Memphis, Central Florida, SMU and Houston had joined. Tulsa is joining.

UConn’s football team went 3-9. Connecticut’s basketball team no longer was playing Georgetown and Syracuse and West Virginia and Villanova and all those grand old Big East rivals that made that conference so great.

“I’m glad our American flag is being raised, I’m talking about the American conference, that we have a team represented in the Final Four,” basketball coach Kevin Ollie said. “It’s going to be a great conference going forward.  We’re so proud to be a part of it.”

Maybe so. But questions abounded about Connecticut regardless of conference affiliation. Could UConn’s basketball success extend beyond Jim Calhoun, the legendary coach who stepped down in September 2012? The Huskies were nothing of note before Calhoun. Ollie is a Connecticut loyalist, but who knew if he could coach a lick.

“We never blinked,” Ollie said. “We knew this program was still alive and this program wasn’t going anywhere.  We were going to hurt this year, last year (with Calhoun’s departure), but we were still going to be there and be relevant and we were going to play for what was on the front of our chests. “

And could UConn football stay relevant? The Huskies lost their Fiesta Bowl coach, Randy Edsall, to Maryland. His successor, Paul Pasqualoni, was fired early in the 2013 season.

Those were legitimate questions. And Connecticut’s future remains hazy. UConn wanted in the ACC but was rebuffed. There was talk of Connecticut as perhaps a Big 12 school, giving West Virginia an eastern partner, but the Big 12 has shown no interest in expansion anywhere, much less into New England.

And Connecticut’s basketball season was just so-so. The Huskies tied for third in the new American Athletic Conference; Louisville and Cincinnati tied for the title at 15-3, with UConn, Memphis and SMU at 12-6. The Huskies reach the American tournament finals but entered the NCAA Tournament as a seven-seed, with a 26-8 record.

Now Connecticut has beaten Saint Joseph’s, Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State. There is life after Jim Calhoun. Maybe there’s life after the Big East.

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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