The future starts now for Huskies

UConn basketball coach Kevin Ollie talks with his team during a timeout in a game against Cincinnati on March 2 at Cincinnati.
David Kohl/AP photo UConn basketball coach Kevin Ollie talks with his team during a timeout in a game against Cincinnati on March 2 at Cincinnati.

After residing in the same college basketball neighborhood for 34 years, UConn is preparing for a drastic change.

There will be few familiar friends in the new, revamped conference home.

The Huskies will need to build new relationships and new rivalries. Their fans will have to grow accustomed to watching Houston, Memphis and Southern Methodist instead of Georgetown, Syracuse and Villanova.

Everyone involved is trying to paint a smile on the ugly face of realignment.

What choice do they have?

"I think that going forward we're going to have a great future," South Florida coach Stan Heath said at the Big East tournament farewell party last week in New York. "When the dust settles and everything gets figured out, we're going to line up, and we're going to play. We're going to make the best out of any situation we're in."

The yet-to-be-named conference certainly isn't what UConn envisioned when the seismic shift in college athletics began. It's no secret that the Huskies would jump to the Atlantic Coast Conference in a nanosecond, if invited.

For at least for the foreseeable future, they'll make the best of their situation.

UConn coach Kevin Ollie is looking forward to building off his program's firm foundation.

"I grew up watching the Big East … but change happens," Ollie said. "We're going to keep having the same recipe that allowed us to have championships and have conference championships. ... But we've got to change our approach as a coaching staff, as a university.

"The pride, the tradition, the dominance is going to still be there. I'm just so glad that I'm sitting in this seat as a head coach that I can be on a great ride that we're about to go on. The journey is not over. And it's just beginning."

From a college basketball standpoint, it will be a big adjustment for the Huskies, one of the original members of the Big East. They're saying goodbye to regional rivalries.

Cincinnati and South Florida join UConn as leftovers from the old Big East while Louisville and Rutgers will stick around for one more year before bolting for the ACC and Big Ten, respectively.

Among the newcomers, only Memphis, which won the Conference USA tournament title Saturday to secure an automatic NCAA bid, is ranked in the Top 25. Temple, which had a strong season in the Atlantic 10, is the other NCAA tournament team.

Central Florida, Houston and SMU are the other new members coming from Conference USA. Tulane and East Carolina will join in 2014.

The new conference will have shallower depth and fewer marquee teams than the old Big East.

Still, Jim Calhoun, who retired last fall after a Hall of Fame coaching career at UConn, likes the growth potential of the new conference.

"There are schools coming in that can play," Calhoun said. "You can match up the history of the University of Houston with a lot of schools in our league. They aren't there yet basketball-wise. Memphis has a pretty rich basketball tradition. Temple is certainly terrific.

"… We grew in the Big East, we changed. Even though we were a good team regionally, the Big East helped change us and we helped change the Big East. The bottom line is, I think some schools that will happen to."

Another challenge facing the Huskies is scheduling. Playing in a loaded Big East, they only had to schedule a few nonconference powers to strengthen their resume. That approach won't work competing in what is expected to be a weaker conference.

As special assistant to athletic director Warde Manuel, Calhoun is helping with the scheduling strategy. UConn will look at playing more non-conference teams ranked in the top 40 range.

UConn already is participating in the 2K Sports Classic next November at Madison Square Garden, joining Indiana, Washington and Boston College.

"We'll take the teams we do play (in conference), take the power ratings and get a real hard look at what we need to do on the outside," Calhoun said. "We never worried about scheduling because we always played a really good out of league schedule, good tournaments and we always had a good home and home with an NCAA tournament-type team.

"We always relied that we were going to jump (in the power ratings) once we got into Big East play. I don't think that's going to happen as much."

"There are starting to be things on radar, which we hope we can create. And normally what we do is we go to ESPN and CBS, whatever it may be, and try to create something."

Calhoun said UConn will reach out to some Big East rivals, including Syracuse and Villanova, about setting up games. Providence is another opponent that might make sense given the two programs' history and close proximity.

But it may be difficult to convince quality teams to visit UConn. Other programs realized the position that the Huskies are in.

"We have 26 straight winning seasons," Calhoun said. "Winning doesn't necessarily make everybody like you. Who doesn't like to start a series off at their place? Especially if they feel they're in a power position.

"Our final power rating was probably in the top 30. Without the Big East, that wouldn't have happened. They know now that you need them, so negotiations became a little more difficult."

UConn also will have to convince its fans to embrace the new conference during a time when tickets aren't exactly flying out of the box office. The Huskies only had two sellouts last season.

Conference newcomers are basically strangers. The Huskies have played SMU, Houston, Central Florida, Memphis and Temple a total of 15 times. In comparison, they've met Villanova 62 times.

Once Rutgers and Louisville leave in 2014, South Florida and Cincinnati will be UConn's most common opponents, meeting 12 times apiece.

Ollie's focus remains on building his program. He's trying to sell recruits on the new landscape and UConn's tradition of success. He's already proven that he knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles.

"We're going to use what people say are disadvantages and we're going to change them to advantages because they can take Big East but they can never take UConn," Ollie said. "We stand on something very, very solid and we're going to build on it one brick at a time."

g.keefe@theday.com

A sneak preview

UConn will play in a 10-team yet to be named conference next season. Here's how each program fared this season.

UConn — 20-10 overall, 10-8 in the Big East

Louisville — 29-5, 14-4 in the Big East, won tourney title game

Cincinnati — 22-11, 9-9 Big East

South Florida — 12-19, 3-15 Big East

Rutgers — 15-16, 5-13 Big East

Temple — 23-9, 11-5 Atlantic 10

Memphis — 30-4, 16-0 Conference USA, regular season and tourney champs

Houston — 19-12, 7-9 Conference USA

Central Florida— 20-11, 9-7 Conference USA

Southern Methodist — 15-17, 5-11 Conference USA

Note: Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) leave in 2014 while East Carolina and Tulane are expected to come aboard.

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