Today, for the first time in seven years, UConn is officially a member of the Big East.
On July 1, 2013, the group of schools known as The Catholic Seven made their break with the football schools in the conference and invited Butler, Creighton, and Xavier to form the 10 team league that you have known and loved for the past seven years. While a formidable basketball power, Connecticut was left in the American Athletic Conference because that’s where the football schools were, and the Huskies were devoted to taking the best opportunity for them to bolster that program. Things have changed in the interim, and today the culmination of UConn’s realization that chasing after football success is a fool’s errand at best and a huge waste of their time at worst.
In the meantime, however, things have gone completely sideways for their men’s basketball program.
In the seven seasons preceding the breakup of the best men’s basketball conference that college hoops has ever seen, Connecticut compiled a record of 162-77, a winning percentage of 67.8%. They qualified for four NCAA tournaments in that stretch, reaching the Final Four in 2009 and winning a national championship in 2011. In their seven seasons in the American Athletic Conference, UConn has gone 142-98, a winning percentage of 59.2%. They have made two NCAA tournaments in those seven seasons, and their winning percentage is greatly bolstered by going 32-8 in 2013-14 to win the national championship. Over the past four seasons, two under Kevin Ollie, the coach that won the 2014 title, and two under Dan Hurley, Connecticut has missed the last three NCAA tournaments that were contested. There was no tournament in 2020, but Bracket Matrix says that they weren’t going to get there for the fourth consecutive season. Their three year streak without an NCAA tournament is the longest stretch in program history since missing each year between 1980 and 1989.
Now, sure, there’s a lot of possible explanations for UConn’s downward trend since The Reformation. Some are complicated, some are not. I’m here to address a slightly complicated reason, and it’s one that’s actually very relevant to the Huskies returning to the Big East.
To boil it down to one sentence: I’m reasonably certain that Connecticut’s biggest problem has been that Providence, Seton Hall, and St. John’s have been benefiting from enrolling recruits that would have ended up playing for the Huskies had UConn been in the Big East.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there are a ton of people living in the northeastern part of the United States. As a direct result, there are a ton of high school basketball prospects in the northeastern part of the country. You know what’s important to one level or another to future college basketball players? The ability for their families to be able to come see them play games in person. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Connecticut’s ability to offer that to prospects in the Northeast was diminished by playing in the AAC. The closest road trip in that conference for UConn was Philadelphia (Temple) and the second closest trip was in Greenville, North Carolina (East Carolina). Meanwhile, Providence, Seton Hall, and St. John’s are all within 200 miles of each other. That makes the third shortest road trip for each team in that trio a jaunt down to Philadelphia to see Villanova. That’s the third shortest trip, as opposed to the absolutely shortest possible trip as was the case for the Huskies. With the Big East offering a full home-and-home round robin, that meant that the Big East schools were definitely visiting each other every year, while the Huskies were at the mercies of the AAC’s scheduling decision makers as to who they would play at home and on the road.
If you’re a high school prospect that wants your family to come to a lot of your games, having every home game and multiple road games nearby is pretty important. Even if they can’t make it to every game, merely being able to take advantage of multiple reasonably close games is a big deal. That’s not something that UConn could offer kids in the northeast over the past few years, but it is something that the northeastern most Big East schools could point out to recruits.
Now, of course, I’m merely offering you a theory at this point. I’m putting the pieces together here for you, but they’re all just logic pieces. Let’s move on to actual facts here, shall we?
Let’s bring back UConn’s record before and after The Reformation.
Before: 162-77, 4 NCAA tourneys, 1 F4, 1 national championship
After: 142-98, 2 NCAA Tourneys, 1 national championship
You can see the drop off there. Let’s take a gander at Providence, Seton Hall, and St. John’s in that same time frame.
Before: 113-111, 0 NCAA tournaments
After: 147-90, 5 NCAA tournaments, would have been in for 2020.
Before: 115-108, 0 NCAA tournaments
After: 142-88, 4 NCAA tournaments, would have been in for 2020.
Before: 111-115, 1 NCAA tournament
After: 117-113, 2 NCAA tournaments
Obviously, some people are doing more with their opportunities than other people (coughstjohnscough). Still, though, that’s a notable upturn once the Huskies were out of the picture. In fact, if you use “consecutive NCAA tournament appearances” as the measuring stick, Providence’s Ed Cooley and Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard are now the most successful coaches in the history of their respective programs.
I’ll say it again for dramatic effect: Once Connecticut was no longer in the conference, Providence and Seton Hall embarked on the longest run of sustained success in each program’s history.
But hey, that could just be coincidence, right? I said this was about recruiting earlier, and so now we have to actually look at how the recruiting at each school has been going.
The recruiting class of 2014 is the first one that knew that Connecticut wouldn’t be in the Big East when they could sign letters of intent. We’re going to look at the six classes since then as well as the six classes before that to see how things used to be. Then we’ll cap off with a look at the 2020 recruiting class. UConn’s readmission to the league came last June, and the Class of 2020 wasn’t able to sign letters of intent until the following November. I’ll admit know that it won’t be a perfect picture of what we’re talking about since it’s just one year and there’s variance from year to year as to what teams need to recruit, but the Connecticut end of things provides a perfect ending to our discussion here.
Okay, so. We’re using the 247 Sports Class rankings for all of this, and thus also the 247 Composite rankings when talking about individual players. We’ll take a look at the average class ranking for each of the teams as well as how many top 100 players each team had in the time frame.
Before: 22.8 average class ranking, 12 top 100 guys
After: 53.7 average, 8 top 100 guys
As was the case with their on the court performance, things have dropped off for Connecticut while they were in the AAC. It’s not unreasonable to think that part of UConn’s problems have been the fact that they were not recruiting quite as well as they used to recruit. It’s also worth nothing that thanks to Dan Hurley landing two top 100 recruits in his first full recruiting class, UConn was ranked #18 for the Class of 2019. That regime change is doing an awful lot of heavy lifting for the Huskies to make those After numbers look a lot better than they actually were.
Okay, onwards to the accused. Remember: All three teams below showed an on-court improvement with UConn out of the Big East.
Before: 115 average, 4 top 100 guys
After: 49 average, 8 top 100 guys
Before: 151.6 average (with no recruiting class in 2012), no top 100 guys
After: 65.8 average, 4 top 100 guys
Before: 99 average, 7 top 100 guys
After: 69.7 average, 3 top 100 guys
As you might expect, two massive jumps for the programs that had massive improvements without the Huskies around, and one small bump for the team that was only kind of better without UConn in the fold. I’m actually kind of impressed with St. John’s ending up with a better class average and better on court results while getting fewer top 100 players.
I don’t know about you, but these results sure paint a picture that Providence, Seton Hall, and St. John’s were able to start recruiting better once the lure of playing for Connecticut wasn’t in their conference any more. Obviously the Huskies weren’t doing terrible here, but they did drop off a little bit, and everyone else got better. While UConn still benefited from being UConn and did win a national title in 2014, it seems clear that PC, SHU, and SJU were able to offer something that they weren’t able to offer in the past.
Wondering about the locations for the high schools/prep schools that these top 100 prospects were coming from? Well, let’s look.
Fairfield College Prep, CT
St. Andrew’s, DE
Huntington Prep, WV
Brewster Academy, NH
Bishop O’Connell, VA
Cushing Academy, MA
Brimmer & May, MA
Trinity Christian, NC
Abraham Lincoln, NY
St. Patrick, NJ
South Kent, CT
St. Patrick, NJ
Morgan Park, IL
Thomas Jefferson, NY
Brewster Academy, NH
I’m seeing 11 top 100 prospects that went to our trio of schools that would clearly fall into what you could call the UConn sphere of influence. You’ll notice that Providence, the school of the three that’s closest to Connecticut, is apparently the biggest beneficiary of the Huskies not being able to offer local games to prospects. For years I’ve heard Huskies fans point out that Jim Calhoun built UConn into a national power by taking advantage of kids at New England prep schools. It’s almost as if the Friars just became a default landing spot for prospects that might otherwise end up at UConn.
Sure, some of these guys probably don’t end up at Connecticut even if the Huskies cut football back in 2013 and stick with the Catholic Seven. There’s only so many open spots at any given time. But we have to ask what would have happened if the Huskies would have been able to offer the ability to play lots of games relatively close to home as well as the proud tradition of UConn basketball winning a lot of games every single year.
Imagine a world where Myles Powell ends up at Connecticut instead of Seton Hall. We would all get to stop pretending that Kevin Willard is a good coach and instead Marquette ends up just adding to the pile of hellacious and ridiculous games against the Huskies. Seems like a win-win, doesn’t it?
You may be thinking at this point that I’m just drawing connections that don’t really exist here. Going full Pepe Silvia, if you will.
Remember when I promised to talk about the Class of 2020 earlier? Let’s turn to Syracuse.com, as they explain why Albany native Andre Jackson, the #49 prospect in the Class of 2020, committed to UConn over Syracuse:
The Huskies, too, touted their new/old allegiance with the Big East Conference to Jackson, who is close with his mom and his younger brother and wanted to play someplace where they could watch his games. Albany sits midway between Storrs and Syracuse. And the Big East offers closer road games. Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Villanova and Georgetown are within driving distance.
Jackson committed to Connecticut in October 2019, four months after the Huskies officially announced that they were changing conferences. This is not a coincidence.
Also not a coincidence: This quote from the high school coach of Adama Sanogo, the #76 prospect in the Class of 2020, after Sanogo committed to the Huskies and reclassified to 2020 in early May:
Chavvanes also said “(UConn) did a phenomenal job recruiting him. He told me a couple of weeks ago he was going to Seton Hall.”
I’m not inventing this out of thin air. Prospects going to prep schools in the area (The Patrick School in New Jersey in this case) are literally realizing that they don’t want to go to Seton Hall when they can go to Connecticut instead.
How is Connecticut shaping up for 2020 with those two top 100 guys on board? Well, they have the #21 recruiting class in the country, the second best in the Big East, thanks to Jackson, Sanogo, and Canadian big man Javonte Brown-Ferguson. How are our other three schools doing? St. John’s has the #78 recruiting class in the country, Seton Hall is #85, and Providence is #87. That’s below average for the past few years for all three of them. Is that a little unfair because there’s ups and downs every year because different schools have different needs? Sure. We also have to note that 1) none of those three teams have a top 100 prospect coming in for 2020 and 2) all three of UConn’s prospects are ranked higher than any of the commitments to the other three teams.
If this trend holds, if it turns out that Providence and Seton Hall were in fact running at their peaks in program history because they benefited from the Huskies not being around...... well, I don’t know about you, but then I’m very happy to see Connecticut back in the fold today. College basketball is more fun when Connecticut is good, and I’m more than happy to return Providence, Seton Hall, and St. John’s to the rubbish heap that they came from in order to make that happen.
Welcome back, Connecticut. Go forth and set the world on fire.