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The 'new' Big East: Is that all there is?

And so the college basketball season is past tense now, leaving a query that will run afoul of the blubbering masses here in Connecticut, who thought that a return to the Big East would translate into a bigger elixir than Ponce De Leon's findings:

Your humble narrator finds himself humming a little Peggy Lee today: Is that all there is?

Evidence and circumstances are ever-changing, of course. But year one of the new Big East for the UConn Huskies was ... pedestrian. It produced opponents in women's basketball as overmatched as from the previous outpost and men's competition yearning for the old days.

The foundation of men's basketball in the modern Big East leans heavily on one coach and one building: Jay Wright and Madison Square Garden. Think about it: If Wright ever left Villanova, would the program sustain the level of excellence that renders it the league's only national contender at the moment? If the Garden suddenly decided to host another conference tournament, what cachet would this league really have? It's a bunch of decent teams who struggle to move the needle consistently.

Happily, neither Wright nor the structure at 4 Penn Plaza are going anywhere. But is it possible we here in Connecticut got intoxicated by the sizzle more than the steak?

UConn's decision to leave the American for its old digs meant that the university had tacitly hitched its wagon to men's basketball. More familiar competition in a more established league would theoretically renew interest in a four-time championship program and allow the coaching staff to pursue more high-level players than the vanilla American.

I get the reasoning. Not saying I disagree. But before we lay more candles, rainbows and lollipops at the Big East's altar, shall we explore the residual effects after Year One?

Football's newly relegated status as an independent gives it a 2021 home schedule with Holy Cross, Yale, Wyoming and Middle Tennessee, among others. That wouldn't prompt even the most ardent UConn loyalist to start breathing into a brown paper bag. Argue all you want that it's not much worse than what the AAC would have offered. Just remember: The AAC might have been uninspiring, but it did have more bowl tie-ins and TV games than independence allows. Those count.

Women's basketball: Geno Auriemma, after the loss to Arizona at the Final Four, said, "That's two games in a row now that we faced that kind of (defensive) pressure. I think it took its toll," alluding to the way Baylor also disrupted his team's offense in the regional final. Translation: UConn hadn't seen that level of strength and athleticism in a while and wasn't truly prepared for it.

The pandemic relegated UConn's schedule to consist mostly of Big East opponents this season. Its only three challenges were South Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas. After the South Carolina game Feb. 8, UConn's schedule leading into the NCAA Tournament: Seton Hall, Georgetown, St. John's, Xavier, Creighton, Butler, Marquette, St. John's, Villanova, Marquette.

And while it remains true that the American would have provided competition equally as weak, the Big East's offerings certainly didn't sustain the preseason excitement of this purported newer, better league.

It means that Auriemma's nonleague schedule needs to be as treacherous as ever next year to best prepare his team.

Obvious conclusion: The move to the Big East hasn't moved the needle for football or women's basketball. And so the pressure — rightfully so — should increase on Dan Hurley in future seasons.

Hurley's carefully cultivated national media posse likes to call him "The Carpenter." As in: builder of programs. No denying he rebuilt Wagner and Rhode Island. He reminded us ad nauseum all season about how the UConn program was in "shambles" when he took over. By the end, a more cynical fellow might not have distinguished UConn from Prairie View A&M.

The honeymoon's over. It's time for The Carpenter to use his hammer, tape measure, chisel and reciprocating saw to find some shooters and continue building the one program on campus that most benefits from a change in leagues.

Moreover, The Carpenter isn't going to get away with the whole "by golly, look how far we've come" narrative next year. That may play among his posse. But I hope the Connecticut folks are more discerning.

We're all happier that road trips are now Seton Hall and Georgetown instead of Tulsa and Tulane. We're all happier with greater familiarity of opponents. But this Big East isn't nearly as tough or interesting as the Big East of Rollie, Louie, Boeheim and Big John. This Big East does football and women's basketball no favors either.

To whom much is given, much is required. We require more of men's basketball next season.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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