They say you don't really know what you have until it's gone.
That wasn't exactly true last year, at least not for UConn fans.
As the Big East went through its death march in 2013, each game seemed like the end of an era. The last game against Syracuse. The last game against Georgetown. Even the last game against Providence were all treated sort of like a New Orleans funeral - it was noisy, there were a lot of people, it resembled a party, but deep down it was always a sad affair.
Now, we are knee-deep in the middle of The American conference schedule for Men's and Women's basketball, and the full extent of what was truly lost has settled in.
It's not about the disappearance of the big-name, marquee games. Luckily, at least for this year, UConn still has some formidable opponents on their schedule, with games remaining against Cincinnati (two), Louisville, and Memphis. It will be easy to ratchet up the excitement for most of those games, as they'll go a long way toward establishing UConn's resume heading into March.
Sure, those games don't feel the same as match ups against 'Cuse, Gtown, Villanova, or Pittsburgh, but at least they have some juice.
After that, though, the juice is gone. The meat of schedule just feels ... hollow.
Trust me, it wasn't always easy to psych oneself up for a game against DePaul, and Rutgers has always been a rival in name only, but now it feels like the whole schedule is filled with DePaul and Rutgers.
Big East holdover USF, which barely produced some excitement on the gridiron and never on the basketball court?
And think of next year when Louisville and Rutgers leave, replaced by Tulsa and Tulane. You buying your tickets in advance to see the arrival to the Green Wave? Didn't think so.
Look, the Big East had plenty of bad teams, but at least there was tradition woven into each game. Providence was never challenging for a spot in the Big East Championship, but the Huskies/Friars games were battles. Likewise, Seton Hall hasn't been good in some time, but there was some traditional Big East tension there.
And it was easy to get up for games against Marquette, Notre Dame, and St. Johns. You didn't have to invent juice. It was already there.
It's inherently unfair to expect The American to generate the excitement the old Big East once did. No matter where UConn ended up this year was going to feel strange and disappointing considering how terrific their once thriving conference had been, at least for basketball. But going from that to the AAC has been a shock to the system.
Now, I would watch UConn basketball if they played Stony Brook at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday in the gymnasium at E.O.Smith High School. I'm a fan. That's what I do.
But getting used to this new schedule is, quite frankly, difficult.
I will admit the AAC, for basketball, has been better than I thought. We knew Louisville and Memphis would be really good, but SMU, with the Godfather Larry Brown at the helm, is much better than I realized, and the Bearcats are playing top-echelon basketball right now. If Temple were anywhere near what Temple usually is, this would be a pretty darn good conference, competition-wise.
It's just ... there's no history here. These schools aren't basketball-crazy like everyone, good or bad, seemed to be in the old Big East. I watched a bit of the SMU/Houston game recently, out of some warped feeling of obligation to The American, and the stands weren't half empty, they were pretty much barren. I mean, if there were 100 people in there, I'd be shocked.
I'm sure that's the case in some of these other spots, where basketball hasn't been relevant in, well, ever.
I don't know what the future holds for this conference or UConn's place in it. Next year, the conference gets even thinner and will resemble Conference USA more and more.
Maybe the power conferences start to hoard more power, forcing another round of expansion (16 teams per major conference?) and the Huskies will eventually find their home. Or maybe conferences will remain stable for some time, and the AAC will grow and rivalries from that. It's not hard to imagine UConn strengthening their mini-rivalry with the Bearcats, fostering one with Memphis, and beginning one with a Philly team in Temple. And who knows, maybe someone like USF or UCF or, heck, Tulsa, will play games against UConn that establish traditional must-see games. After all, when I was growing up, UConn/Pittsburgh wasn't exactly appointment television.
All I know is that, right now, I'm missing the Big East. Not just the big names and the big rivals, but everyone. I miss that sense of northeast basketball. I miss that every team had a grudge against everyone else.
Only time will tell whether The American can re-establish some of that. All I know is that, right now, it's hard to see into the future when the past is shining bright in all our faces.