On Tuesday, March 12, 2013, UConn women’s basketball fell 61-59 to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Big East Tournament Final.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’s pass with eight seconds left was stolen by Skylar Diggins, who gave it to Natalie Achonwa for the go-ahead lead. Kelly Farris’s full-court heave bounced off the backcourt, giving Notre Dame the win.
It was the Huskies’ third loss to the Irish that season and the last time UConn lost a conference game.
The next year, the Big East became the American Athletic Conference and Notre Dame bolted for the ACC. Since then, UConn has won 120 straight games against the AAC, including all six regular season and tournament championship. All but one win was by double-digits.
After one more season, that’s about to change. On Saturday morning, news broke that UConn will leave the AAC and join the Big East. It’s hard to argue any program in the athletic department will benefit more from the move than the women’s basketball team.
For six years now, the Huskies have cruised through its conference season without so much as a challenge. Since the conference formed, five non-UConn schools have reached the NCAA Tournament. One is perennial top-25 team USF while another is Louisville, its one year in the conference. The other three teams, UCF, Temple and Tulane, have only appeared once.
UConn isn’t just putting up video game numbers against conference opponents, it’s playing on Rookie Mode. Here’s a visual look at how much better the Huskies are than the rest of the AAC thanks to our own Megan Gauer:
Those are comical levels of dominance. And it’s hurting the Huskies. In 2016-17, UConn wasn’t prepared to play in a close game when it faced Mississippi State in the Final Four and didn’t respond well after getting punched in the face. Last year, the Huskies were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament because they had a weak strength of schedule, according to the committee.
Back during the conference tournament, I asked a handful of players if UConn’s status in the AAC was a negative to them during the recruiting process. None of them said it mattered because the prestige of playing for the Huskies meant more — but those are also players that actually came to UConn.
The Huskies’ recruiting has dipped a bit in recent years and it’s hard not to point to the conference as a major reason. It’s hard to fault a kid if they don’t want to play somewhere that half the schedule can be written off as a win before the season even begins.
Hopefully, UConn will face more competition in the Big East. Last season, the conference ranked sixth in the country in RPI behind the Power Five schools. The AAC came in at ninth, behind the West Coast and Mid-American Conference.
The Big East lacks another dominant program to match UConn, but there’s not many of those in the country to begin with. The conference does have a decent middle class though, led by DePaul. The Blue Demons are coached by Auriemma’s friend Doug Bruno and are typically among the top 25 teams in the nation. Marquette has also become a perennial NCAA Tournament team, making the field each of the past three seasons.
As a whole, Butler and Providence are the only two schools not to make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament in the past decade.
So ultimately, it’s not like UConn is joining an elite basketball conference with multiple title contenders like the ACC or SEC. But it’s still a big enough step up that the Huskies can’t just sleepwalk through the conference season and expect to come out undefeated. The games are going to be tighter, more physical and better prepare UConn for the postseason.
I’ve wondered at times if the women’s basketball team was better off as an independent than in the AAC. That’s how little competition the conference provided the Huskies year in, year out. They were playing teams that should’ve been first round opponents in the NCAA Tournament, not conference mates.
When the wheels of conference alignment stopped in 2013, not a single athletic program at any school in the country was put in a worse position than UConn women’s basketball. It was like if Alabama football dropped into the Sun Belt. Moving to the Big East is the first step in fixing that. It’s not perfect, but it’s worlds better than the Huskies’ current situation.