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Big East hoping UConn can boost conference to new heights

Big East Mens Basketball Quarterfinal Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

UConn women’s basketball returning to the Big East undoubtedly has benefits on both ends of the equation. While the league’s competition level is not where it was in 2012, the Huskies still move to a conference slate that’s leaps ahead of the American Athletic Conference. And for the Big East, adding the best women’s program in college basketball history instantly raises the league’s profile.

“I don’t know if UConn is the icing on the cake or part of the cake, but I think they will create a higher standard of excellence for all our schools,” said Big East commissioner Val Ackerman during the league’s media day on Thursday morning.

Across the league, coaches overwhelmingly echoed the positive sentiment around the addition of UConn, even if it means having a couple of extra conference losses on their resume than in seasons past.

“Adding UConn back, I think we’ve only strengthened what was already, I think, a strong and underrated conference,” said St. John’s head coach Joe Tartamella. “I think a lot of our coaches in the league were really, really excited about the opportunity and what the future holds.”

Xavier’s Mel Moore took her opinion of Connecticut’s return to the next level.

“We were a strong conference without [UConn]. We were top six in the rankings across the country,” she said. “Now you add UConn, why can’t we be the best conference in the nation?”

The Big East rising to the best women’s basketball league in the country is definitely a hot take, but in a few years, it might not be so far off base. In the last two seasons, the Big East has ranked sixth in the country for RPI, just behind the Power 5 conferences. Adding UConn provides an automatic boost to the league’s RPI and the premier program that the Big East was missing to put them in the mix with the power leagues.

But what needs to happen for the Big East to be recognized as one of the top conferences in the nation? When UConn joined the AAC in 2013, the hope was that adding the Huskies would help with recruiting and improve both the top and bottom teams in the league. That never came to fruition in the American, but the Big East is better positioned for the addition of UConn to elevate the conference.

For one, the Big East is already a league with a history of success prior to the Huskies’ re-arrival. The conference routinely has teams grace the Top 25 and sends multiple squads to the NCAA tournament on an annual basis. Additionally, Big East schools are in markets with top recruits like New York and Chicago, unlike the American where teams draw talent from cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Wichita, Kansas. Additionally, the Big East is uniquely positioned to succeed because, unlike the Power 5 and AAC, the conference puts basketball first.

“This is a basketball league, unlike all the other leagues that are primarily college football leagues,” Geno Auriemma said. “At a lot of other places, they just don’t care about women’s basketball. I don’t care what the AD says, I don’t care what the president said. I’ve seen it first-hand. They just don’t care. And I truly believe in my heart in this conference basketball is a passion of the ADs, of the presidents. It’s in the DNA of the schools in this league.”

On top of elevating talent across the league, the Big East needs another team to join women’s college basketball’s top tier. Though DePaul is a perennial top-25 program and Marquette has found a place in the AP poll in recent years, the best conferences typically have two of the country’s best ten teams in their ranks. For instance, the ACC has Notre Dame (last season aside) and Louisville, the Pac-12 has Stanford and Oregon, and the SEC has South Carolina and Mississippi State.

DePaul’s consistent success makes it the most likely team to make the jump, but as we’ve seen with some of the aforementioned programs on the list above, sometimes it just takes one top recruit to put a team on the map. A’ja Wilson was that recruit for South Carolina and Sabrina Ionescu for Oregon. If it wasn’t for Ionescu, we probably wouldn’t be talking about the Pac-12 as a top women’s basketball conference.

Even if another team doesn’t make the leap to the top ten, all hope isn’t lost. The Big 10 was the second-best conference (by RPI) in the country last season with only Maryland at an elite level. Instead, their success came from the league’s depth with all but two teams in the RPI top-150. That’s a level of depth the Big East certainly has the potential to replicate.