Wednesday, January 15, 2014

American Bad Rap-sody

By Jonathan Lowe

The process of realignment is usually to make conditions better for the schools that transfer their allegiances, as well as the conferences whom accept them. It's supposed to raise the awareness of a school's athletic department and, possibly, solidify the credibility of said conference. This doesn't mean that the program and its new conference will automatically, or ultimately, be a great fit. However, the perception going in is one of enhancement.

I know that this recent wave of realignment has been spurred on by football. This also leads to the assumption that the schools that aren't relevant when it comes to pigskin may get left out in the lurch. This brings me to the fate of the original Big East conference.

We all remember how the Northeast-based league had been plucked of several of its former members. Since 2004, the power football programs slowly moved on to other suitors (primarily the ACC). The basketball inside the conference shifted deck chairs, but it didn't really suffer (with four NCAA men's titles since 2003). However, this latest round of realignment meant the death knell for the league as we knew it. With the non-football schools severing ties to create a new Big East and two more schools joining the ACC, one long-time member stood alone — Connecticut.

The Huskies had been a charter member in the case where church and state actually came together. The combination of religiously-affiliated, private, and state-run worked well for a quarter-century. The league saw their own use in expanding when the football conference came into being in 1991. But as members got picked away to more lucrative paydays, UConn became the outlier. The football program wasn't good enough. The basketball success (men's AND women's) just wasn't enough. In the end, that put them on an island that the ACC, Big Ten, and new Big East couldn't bring along.

Instead, this now-proud basketball hotbed has to settle in to what is essentially the new Conference USA. Don't get me wrong. Louisville's the defending national champion ... but they're gone after this season (ACC). Rutgers' new coach (Eddie Jordan) may very well build a successful program around his NBA pedigree ... but they'll be one-and-done, too (Big Ten). Cincinnati and South Florida are familiar to the Huskies, but they're even more familiar with old foes Memphis and Tulane. Overall, I feel sorry for Connecticut's plight.

How did this come to pass? For me, it started on New Years' Eve. That was the opening night of the conference's basketball history. Louisville and Memphis recorded expected wins over UCF and USF, respectively. Then, the Huskies took the stage. They were ranked in the top 20 and on a Texas Swing that completed a long stretch away from Storrs. Kevin Ollie's team was still expected to take down unranked Houston, then unranked SMU days later. The Huskies went back home with a Texas No-Step, dropping both games and their national ranking. That's the new life for this program. Trips to upstate New York, western Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. are replaced by those to Texas and the Mississippi Delta.

In essence, UConn basketball is left on an snowy island. They are trying to forage a new identity, not just for itself, but as the perceived bell ringer for the newly-formed American Athletic Conference. In doing so, it appears that they've taken a major hit in terms of marketability through no fault of their own.

Now, I understand that no one is crying for this outfit. Three national championships over the last 15 years has set Connecticut's program among the best in the sport. And other hoops programs that have been edged out by realignment (BYU, Hawaii) seem to have benefitted financially, if nothing else. But none of those programs has the responsibility of being the face of an infant league in this present day of sports.

So, to the "new-look" Huskies, I say "Godspeed" and "Lord Willin'." Here's to your shot at making the New School better than the Ol' one.

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