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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Hurley: UConn Would Be Powerhouse Even Without a Return to the Big East

  • In many ways, the team's rebirth aligned its return to its conference of yore.
  • The Huskies would have come to dominate the men’s game whether they were duking it out in the Big East or still languishing in the AAC.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

By the time UConn announced it would rejoin the Big East for the 2020–21 season, the program had fallen into a period of irrelevance. The Huskies, toiling in the American Athletic Conference, hadn’t won a national championship since 2014, and hadn’t even reached the NCAA tournament since 2016. 

In many ways, the team’s rebirth aligns with the return to its conference of yore. (After all, programs move away from conferences for two reasons: to get rich and, by proxy, get better.) When the realignment announcement came in the summer of 2019, Dan Hurley (above, right) had just finished his first season as the head coach in Storrs. In 2021, their first year back in the Big East, the Huskies made their first NCAA tournament in half a decade. In 2023, they won the national title, and are going for the repeat in Phoenix on Monday night—a feat accomplished by only seven other men’s teams in history. 

But when Front Office Sports asked whether his program would have reached this level of dominance if it hadn’t rejoined the Big East, he leaned forward into the microphone and said, “Absolutely.” 

“We would be where we were regardless.” 

Hurley acknowledged that the move “certainly helped,” and he’s made plenty of comments suggesting he’s much happier with UConn in its current conference than its former one. The Big East’s intense competition really kept the team sharp—Hurley likened the Huskies’ journey to that of Kelvin Sampson and Houston, who moved from the AAC to the Big 12 just this year and led the Cougars to a conference title and Sweet 16 berth. (Hurley has spent most of the postseason reiterating how he believed the conference deserved at least three more bids than it received.)

But the 2024 Naismith National Coach of the Year said that by the time ’20 rolled around, the program was already recruiting “at a very, very high level.” He also said they had the “best staff in the country” at the time. 

From a financial standpoint, UConn isn’t getting rich in the Big East, either. In the AAC, the school could expect somewhere between $8 million and $10 million in annual revenue distributions, according to recent tax filings. In its new conference, the athletic department receives no more than $5 million. (The Big East is in the midst of negotiating a new, and potentially more lucrative, media-rights deal, and talks are going well, commissioner Val Ackerman told reporters during the conference’s tournament.) The school has, however, been able to cut down a multimillion-dollar budget deficit in its new home. 

Ultimately, the conference should be thanking them, he said. “We’ve also had a big impact on the Big East.”

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